Corteva Agriscience: How cutting-edge biologicals could provide a sustainable solution to the world’s food production challenge
Dec. 10, 2020
Originally from France, Frederic Beudot is now based in Indianapolis, where he is the Global Portfolio Leader – Biologicals at Corteva Agriscience. With decades of crop protection experience in Europe and North America, Frederic is leading Corteva’s transition to an integrated business that combines the strengths of conventional and biological products.
CropLife International speaks to Frederic about the future role of biologicals in crop production and his work at the cutting-edge of crop science with Corteva Agriscience.
WHAT ARE BIOLOGICALS AND WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE THEM PLAYING IN CROP PRODUCTION?
Frederic Beudot: “One of the biggest challenges for agriculture is that farmers in almost all parts of the world are under pressure to increase yields, while at the same time having to contend with growing consumer and regulatory resistance to traditional crop protection solutions. In response, agriscience companies like Corteva are developing sustainable, long-term solutions to this food production challenge. Biologicals can contribute significantly to such solutions.
“The term ‘biologicals’ encompasses a very broad range of technologies, but if you boil it down, we are talking about unmodified products of natural origin. While it is false to think that being natural automatically makes a product safe – with a data-driven, science-based approach, it is possible to develop biologicals that not only help boost food production, but that safely break down into very simple molecules that are already present in the natural environment.
“With the right approach, biologicals, can be developed to be very targeted, and in a way that will minimize the effect on non-target organisms and environments. Whether used as insecticides or fungicides to manage disease, or being used to help reduce the number of crop sprays needed in a season, biologicals can be deployed alongside other technologies to increase food production safely, and with the approval of regulators and consumers.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF CORTEVA’S BIOLOGICALS PRODUCTS AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
FB: “When we created Corteva, biologicals were quickly identified as a tool that would enable us to enrich the lives of food producers and consumers. After assessing what other organizations had done in the space – what had worked, what had not – we identified a number of strategic areas to focus our development efforts on; one of those areas of immediate focus are biofertilizers and biostimulants.
“Biofertilizers include bacteria – either added to the seed or the soil or sprayed on the crop – that can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to a form that plants can use. Or solutions that use bacteria capable of solubilizing phosphorus or calcium in the soil to make it available to plants.
“We are also working on biostimulant solutions that help plants find nutrients in the soil and then use these nutrients in a more efficient way. As a consequence of improved nutrition and health, plants may produce or retain more flowers or improve sugar content. Biostimulants can also help plants better respond to abiotic stresses like lack of water, temperature excesses or phytotoxicity.
“We are also developing biocontrol solutions. Some of these – like the fungus Beauveria bassiana, which contaminates and kills target insects – function in a very similar way to conventional crop protection products. However, it is also possible to develop indirect biocontrol solutions that work on supercharging the natural defenses of a plant.
“Then, there are solutions like non-lethal biological control tools that are not at all typical in the world of crop protection. For example, we are looking at pheromones that disrupt pest reproduction and repellents that move pests away from crops and to areas where they will not do any damage.”
WHAT IS DRIVING THE DEVELOPMENT AND UTILIZATION OF BIOLOGICALS IN CROP PRODUCTION?
FB: “Across the world, but particularly in Europe, we are seeing an increasing amount of regulation, with the result that farmers are losing many of the crop protection tools they have been using for the last 30 or 40 years. To meet new regulatory standards – and to ensure that fresh, safe produce reaches the shelves – farmers will need to transition from all-chemical programs to integrated solutions that combine the strengths of conventional and biological products sooner rather than later.
Climate change is another driving force in the adoption of biologicals. Many parts of the world are facing drought, which means that farmers have less water available to grow their crop. To improve surface water quality and limit greenhouse gas emissions, many farmers are also being required to limit their use of fertilizer. On top of all this, farmers are having to deal with rising temperatures, which in many parts of the world is not helpful for crop production. In response, we need to find ways to either adjust the cropping system, adjust the germplasm, or work on biological solutions that help protect yields in the face of changing conditions.
“While there is no silver bullet, biologicals can bring us some of the required resilience and adaptability necessary to meet these challenges. However, they need to be combined with many other technologies and techniques in a farmer’s toolbox. Corteva’s role, and the role of other people supporting farmers, is to figure out how to use all the tools available and how to combine them for the best outcome.”
HOW CAN BIOLOGICALS HELP IMPROVE THE PRODUCTIVITY AND LONGEVITY OF SOIL?
FB: “Soil is one of the most complex systems in the environment. It has a huge diversity of organisms and there are lots of different chemical and physical processes going on at different soil depths.
“However, there has been a tendency to employ crop production practices that focus on maximizing yield and enable intense crop rotation, which may inadvertently reduce overall soil health and microbial diversity. In some areas it can involve fumigating the soil to kill the naturally present organisms, and then adding the right type and volume of fertilizer and water. This traditional approach is easier to control, however continual fumigation and crop rotation can eventually throw the natural ecosystem off balance.
“Our vision is to get back to working with the natural balance of the soil – using biologicals to enhance the capabilities that are beneficial for the crop and minimizing (but not necessarily eliminating) the processes that are less beneficial. This is where we start thinking about the role of organisms like mycorrhizae in the soil, which improve the plant’s absorption of nutrients, or Trichodermas, which can play a role in keeping the soil fungi in balance so that they do not overrun the crop.
“We can also use biologicals to help break down the cover crop much more quickly – returning the nutrients and carbon to the soil. This not only warms up the soil to enable earlier planting but helps to improve soil quality, it helps to address climate change by accelerating the sequestration of carbon in the soil.
“In the end, it is all about finding ways to get back to more self-regulating systems. A lot of the challenges we are now facing come because we have found it easier to strip things out of the soil. This gives us a lot of control over the crop but is not sustainable.”
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU SEE IN THE BROADER ADOPTION OF BIOLOGICAL PRODUCTS?
FB: “The first challenge is to establish the credibility of biological products. There are a lot of biologicals currently being promoted that do not deliver what is being promised to the farmer, or that do work, but that are being grossly underutilized.
“This is partly because biologicals are much more sensitive to the conditions and the environment they are being used in, meaning that results can be variable from year to year. We need to work to understand the variables so that we can pick the right tools for the right job and use them at the right time. This will require a lot of heavy lifting on the research and data front, but if we combine data- and science-backed products with proportionate science-based regulation for the biologicals we accept onto the market, we will be able to increase credibility.
“We are already seeing progress on this front. Private equity start-ups have spent around $10bn over the last decade in developing new biologicals solutions and we are now starting to see some really novel, effective and data-backed solutions emerging, which will only be positive in building trust.
“The second big challenge we face is production capacity. Production facilities are currently set-up for chemistry, so to develop biologicals we will need a complete pivot from synthesis to fermentation and natural product extracts. With the right investment, this challenge will be overcome, but we may face production capacity issues along the way.
“The third challenge to adoption will be around regulation. When biologicals only accounted for 0.01% of the market, very few people were investing the time to think about regulation. However, with growing societal demand and biologicals set to grow to double digits within the next decade, we encourage industry and governments around the world to work together to ensure fit-for-purpose regulatory frameworks that foster the development and deployment of these solutions.”
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