November 4, 2015

SUSTAINABILITY: Bayer Symposium Focuses Attention on Issue

Bayer CropScience proactively changed its strategy in the horticultural sector five years ago toward an approach to help growers, shippers and distributors be more profitable.

Klaus Koetting, who is the head of the fruit and vegetable and insecticides sector for the German-based company, said the firm determined that the best way to increase sales was to help producers be more profitable.  Recently the company held a two-day seminar in Puerto Vallarta, which featured a plethora of experts presenting on issues from both from the 40,000-foot and ground levels.  Broad topics of sustainability were explored as well as examples of individual solutions to individual problems.  One theme that surfaced time and time again was how to use fewer chemical tools to create a more sustainable future in the agricultural realm.  Bayer plays in this field with its increased focus on biologicals over the past several years.

In a separate discussion, Koetting said making sure growers can be productive producers and good stewards of the land is a definite goal of one of the world’s leading agricultural chemical suppliers.  The seminar featured almost three dozen speakers talking about production issues in the Americas.  (See sidebar story of WG CEO and President Tom Nassif’s address to the group.)  Many crops were talked about during the meeting but separate discussions were reserved for five main horticultural crops: tomatoes, bananas, citrus, grapes and potatoes.

Mathias Kremer, the head of strategy and portfolio management for Bayer CropScience, revealed just how large the horticultural sector is.  There are 240 million hectares in fruit and vegetable production around the world, which produce a total of 2.7 billion tons of product.  Bayer has 7,400 agronomists stationed in 120 countries working with horticultural products.  More than a quarter of the company’s revenues come directly from this sector.

In the specific discussion of the tomato crop, Alberto Torres, who is the food safety manager for the Mexico-based firm of Agricola El Rosal, said that “social responsibility’ is extremely important in fruit and vegetable production today.  That theme was reiterated throughout the two-day event.  He noted that not only do buyers talk about it all the time, but during the recent U.S. visit by the Catholic pope, Francis, social responsibility was an important item.

Geert Janssen, R&D Tomato Team Leader for Bayer, said that breeding priorities have changed over the years which makes that job all the more difficult.  He said “breeding is a long-term vision.”  The breeder first evaluates a variety that won’t be on the market for a decade.  He needs to guess right about the traits that growers will be looking for 10 years down the road.  Of course the agronomic traits of yield and disease resistance are important.  But flavor, looks and sustainability have to be considered as well.  What will tomorrow’s grower be looking for in 2025?  Those are the seeds the breeders are currently evaluating.  He did say that marker-assisted breeding has the capability of helping researchers speed up the process and transfer advantageous traits into new varieties.  He was quick to add, however, that this is not genetic modification.  He said at the current time Bayer has no GMO research moving forward.

The citrus discussion was very sobering as the topic was the dreaded greening disease that has devastated Florida, greatly impacted Brazil and is being mightily fought in California and Texas.  Tim Anglea of Coca Cola, a major buyer of citrus for juice, noted that in Florida “thousands of jobs, millions of tress and billions of dollars” have been lost because of the issue.  Florida’s production is down significantly this year to the lowest level in half a century.  He said 90 percent of the trees in Florida have been affected.

It is a global problem.  Brazil, which has more citrus trees than any country in the world, has seen 34 million trees uprooted.  Because of the size of the industry in that country, that only represents 18 percent of the crop.

Anglea revealed that Coca Cola has launched an incentive program to convince growers to replant.  He said the pace of replanting is too slow and the beverage giant is hoping to see 25,000 new acres and five million additional trees planted over the next few years.

Bayer’s expert on the subject—Steve Olson—said there is still no cure for HLB (Huanglongbing) or a surefire way to eradicate the Asian Citrus Psyllid that carries the disease, but Bayer is working to find crop protection options.  Currently, any tree infected probably should be removed.  Why the problem is so difficult is that symptoms appear gradually but the disease spreads very easily.  A grove can become infected very quickly before action can be taken.

The discussion about potatoes included Neil Gudmestad, a well-known potato researcher who plies his trade at North Dakota State University.  He noted that “large buyers, political activists and anti-ag zealots” are pressuring potato growers in the Midwest to produce more sustainably.  “We must accelerate our efforts,” he said, though clearly disagreeing with the tactics of all of those groups.

While he agreed that the effort toward more sustainable crop protection tools was a good thing, he appears to be well past the debating stage.  “We have a definite need to change the way we are doing things,” he said.  “There is a critical need to identify biological controls” for the diseases impacting potatoes.

A panel of growers from Peru and Mexico cited food safety and labor as the two top challenges facing production agriculture in the world.  Felix Tarrats, managing director of Mexico-based Ceickor, said generally people do not want to work in the field harvesting crops.  “It happened in Europe; it happened in the United States and it’s happening in Mexico.”  Climate change and lack of rain also appear to be universal problems.

A session devoted to sustainability explored various approaches to help growers use less inputs and be better stewards of the land.  Ben Hogsburgh of Univeg advocated for “intelligent collaboration” stating that working together growers can become more sustainable.  He discussed the “hot spot approach” which involves analyzing an operation and prioritizing where one can get the most bang for the buck.  He discussed a couple of collaborations that have worked very well to increase the sustainability quotient, including an Ecuadorian banana effort.

Jose Dominguez, Bayer’s marketing director for fruit and vegetables in Latin America, discussed Bayer’s web page— —which details 10 years of successful projects to bring safe, sustainable produce from the field to harvest.  The website discusses many of these efforts in detail and can be a good resource for growers.

Ronald Guendel, who works in political affairs and stakeholder relations for Bayer, discussed BAYGAP, which helps growers establish a sustainability plan.  The details of this program can be found on Bayer’s website.

Still another speaker was James Christie of Bryant Christie, a firm that helps companies gain access to international markets.  He specifically talked about MRLs (maximum residue levels) and their growing use by countries all over the world.  He said many, many countries have established new MRLs and the rate at which they are being used to limit imports varies from country to country.  He argued that it is very important for an exporting company to know the regulations of each country and how serious they are in enforcing these regulations.  Bryant Christie updates its MRL data base constantly and appears to be a great resource for export help.  For example, he said China is establishing many new MRLs, but currently it has not issued many violations.  South America has no testing or violations at this point.  Canada, he said, generally uses default tolerances and has a very generous leeway for violations.  He called it “the most generous in the world.”