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May 2014

The future of seed treatment

“IT'S ALL ABOUT INTEGRATION”

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Martin Gruss talked to Garlich von Essen, General Secretary of the European Seed Association (ESA), about the future of seed treatment.
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Garlich von Essen

Martin Gruss: “Bayer is celebrating “100 years of innovation” in the seed treatment business this year. What do you think Bayer has brought to the industry?”

Garlich von Essen: “Bayer's excellent understanding of the needs of the industry delivered the technology of chemical seed treatment, which has entirely entered the plant breeding sector. Bayer gave birth to this technology, which is an exciting development.”

Martin Gruss: “How has it changed the seed industry?”

Garlich von Essen: “Seed-applied technology has dramatically changed the expectations of farmers about what they can actually buy with the seed. They no longer merely buy a specific variety but also expect solutions to their individual farming challenges. And that is obviously how to best protect the genetic potential of the seed, and also integrate different aspects like nutrients and other seed-applied technologies. It’s entirely different from the situation 50 or 100 years ago. Besides, the seed industry itself has become a customer of the crop protection industry and brought its individual needs and wishes into the development of solutions. So what we are seeing now is integration.”

Martin Gruss: “What are the big trends and challenges ahead?”

Garlich von Essen: “Today in Europe a much broader range of crops is being planted in a much wider range of ecological conditions than ever before. This is partly because genetics makes it possible, and partly because customers want local produce. So there is a constant need for individual solutions and new solutions, as we are facing many new challenges – from new crop environments and from new alien species. In this, crop protection needs to be as effective as possible while impacting the environment as little as possible.”

Martin Gruss: “How willing do you think authorities will be to accept products where there is no other solution?”

Garlich von Essen: “We have a bit of an educating exercise ahead of us – and that is something we have to do together. In Europe there is a misperception that you can have food production of the highest quality and safety levels without crop protection. That is not a realistic scenario. Europe very clearly depends on crop protection products for its crop production. The question is what kind of products and what risks we want to take. The lessons of the past show that we are less willing to take risks and have thus implemented rigorous standards on how to apply products. We have to look at what is realistic and understand that we are forced to use a certain amount of products. At the same time, however, we have to mutually agree on how we can do that in a sustainable and professional manner.”

“To me it's more a question of how we use the products, and not a question of whether we do or don’t. Take the example of a reckless car driver – it's not just the airbag that reduces traffic casualties but also, or even more so, the driving style.”

Martin Gruss: “How do you think that we as a manufacturer can influence the process of becoming a better ‘driver’ – to stick with the car analogy?”

Garlich von Essen: “We have to point out that as an industry – from the seed company to the farmer – we are already highly professional: we use and handle our products in a professional manner; we are aware of potential risks; and we deploy certain risk mitigation measures. But we need to talk about all that in a louder, clearer and more integrated way. And we need to open our doors to especially critical voices and the wider public so we can explain and demonstrate to them what we are doing and how we are doing it.”

Martin Gruss: “What changes in the seed itself need to be addressed through our solutions?”

Garlich von Essen: “Obviously the aim is for the seed to grow more with less, under rapidly changing conditions. And here the interaction between genetics and chemistry will very likely become more important. This is a highly sophisticated and possibly highly expensive business. The question is whether we will be able to develop such solutions for all crops, or need to focus initially on staple or higher value crops.”

Martin Gruss: “In other industries we can see trends like microbreweries or 3D printers. Do you think we will be treating individual kernels in the near future?”

Garlich von Essen: “Over the past 20 years we have been going in precisely this direction with precision farming. Every field is different and we understand that. So obviously going down to an individual seed level seems logical to me. But we need to understand where that creates value and brings a pay-off. Maybe we will start with tomatoes.”

Martin Gruss: “We have a lot experience of where the additional protection or benefits from on-seed technology are highly appreciated to complement traits and thus increase the value of some varieties. We can see that in the main GM-driven crops in the US, Canada or Brazil, for example. Do you think that the trend of seeds becoming more high tech and of higher value will also continue in crops that are not on the radar today?”

Garlich von Essen: “We already have a number of techniques and technologies that are standard practice in certain markets, but we haven’t got this situation in Europe yet. At the same time, there are many other breeding techniques that will also allow us to actually do more in genetics. And that increases seed value and creates a strong demand to do more for every single kernel.”

Martin Gruss: “At Bayer we offer a fully integrated system for on-seed application consisting of Products, Services, Equipment and Coatings. Where do you think we could most help the industry in tackling its future challenges? And what should we maybe put more focus on?”

Garlich von Essen: “From the point of view of a seed company or a plant breeder I would simply say: “With everything!” What I personally see is more and more integration – different stakeholders working closer and closer together for integrated products and to develop solutions. It is very important to identify the specific needs, challenges and maybe suggestions – or identify specific genetics that will allow your product to perform best. But it is also important to ensure that those products are deployed in the right manner by using the right systems or machinery; that there is professional-standard usage; and that easy mistakes are avoided. So it’s all about the overall guidance given – i.e. services. It’s about helping the end user of the product, i.e. the treated seed. And it’s about combining the products of genetics and chemistry so the end user is supported in using seed in the best possible manner.”

Martin Gruss: “I fully agree that understanding the challenges and mutually addressing them are absolutely crucial factors. Maybe we can look even more to the future and talk about what we are not doing today. What features or technologies could become relevant in the future?”

Garlich von Essen: “Oh, there are various areas we have not fully investigated: nanotechnology, marking, precision farming – these are the kinds of things I could envisage in the future. Intellectual property rights are a big issue for the industry. And there are numerous areas that will broaden the functions we will apply to the seed.”

Martin Gruss: “We asked our customers about what will matter in the future. They said that seed-applied technologies will increase in importance. And one idea really grabbed them – the idea of the “complete seed”. So planting and harvesting are the only things you have to do with your crop. Is that realistic?”

Garlich von Essen: “Hmmm, I’m not sure if we could include everything – maybe not. But as timing is the most crucial challenge in modern farming, it’s very logical to combine things and integrate them into the existing steps in the chain. If you could do more in one go, it would be a major step forward. And we are observing clear tendencies that individual steps usually taken at a later stage are being carried out at the beginning.”

Martin Gruss: “Does that trigger ideas like slow-release technology and make interaction between plant, soil and different inputs more important?”

Garlich von Essen: “Absolutely. We’re going more and more into frontloading. More technology at the beginning means less work at the end. That’s a sophisticated business but I’m sure we’ll see many new innovations and technologies here.”
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