Global Portfolio Head –
Soil & Seed Health at UPL
This summer, visitors to Somerset House – an iconic historic building in central London, United Kingdom – will be in for surprise. Where previously greeted only by an empty stone courtyard, a large forest now stands, with thick bushes and branches reaching from corner to corner across the entire square. It is part of an awareness campaign for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provides a timely reminder of the centrality of plant health to planet health.
4,000 miles away, Jonatas Alves, Global Portfolio Head – Soil & Seed Health, needs no convincing on this point. From UPL’s US Headquarters in Durham, NC, Jonatas is leading a new movement to place soil, seed, plant and planet health at the centre of UPL’s relationships with food, farms and farmers alike.
In recent years UPL has emerged as one of the most progressive and forward looking top-tier agribusinesses, using its global footprint to lead the business, technology, and innovation agenda around the future of sustainable agriculture. Following a significant merger with Arysta LifeScience in 2019, UPL now brings a compelling combined offer of traditional crop protection products alongside an increasingly impressive biological solutions offering. With the addition of high-touch services, UPL is working with a wide range of seed treatment technologies that not only protect the health of the crop, but support its full genetic potential and performance giving customers the best quality produce.
AgroPages spoke with Jonatas to explore how UPL is changing the game for seed treatment, and to hear about the wider sustainability agenda to which it is contributing.
Tell us about the strength of UPL’s history in seed treatment?
For several decades, UPL has been recognised as a world leader in seed treatment, but it is most visible via our legacy companies – which include Uniroyal, Chemtura and Arysta – and primarily focused on the application of fungicides to seeds.
Since the Arysta acquisition in 2019, we now have a much broader portfolio across the whole spectrum of plant health, covering pest control, nematodes control, and growth stimulation. UPL is on a very exciting trajectory, with the strength of our legacy operations combining with our biological interventions to offer growers something really special.
Seed treatment is historically a small part of the market – so why are you pushing this agenda?
It all starts with the seeds – more and more focus has been dedicated to this critical input for crop production worldwide and UPL has made a clear commitment to drive the direction of our business and offering by listening to growers and understanding their pain points. What issues are farmers facing in their crops? What pests are they seeing emerge? What is adverse weather doing to their fields? We listen to our farmers and we are able to see that seed health is the first step towards plant health, which brings greater yields and more vigorous, resilient crops that can radically change the prospects of a grower. Of course there is a strategic positioning for UPL to continue investing in seed treatment but it’s also what our growers and our customers are wanting to see. It’s a highly specialised market, and we are perfectly positioned to continue our growth here.
The strength of our biosolutions offering – now housed under our NPP global entity – also offers growth potential in areas that have been left behind by traditional crop protection products.
“What issues are farmers facing in their crops? What pests are they seeing emerge? What is adverse weather doing to their fields? UPL is good at listening to growers and understanding their pain points in order to bring the right solutions for them.”
— Jonatas Alves
What is included in the “Soil & Seed Health at UPL” portfolio?
We recently reshaped this portfolio to combine our solutions for Seed Health, which include products for Seed Treatment and in-furrow application, with our technologies to improve the health of our agricultural soils and consequently crop resilience. Both Soil Health and Seed Health are directly connected in many aspects. One of them is the fact that the seed is one of the most effective vehicles to deliver products and technologies to improve soil health such as beneficial microbes. In regards to seed treatment we have an excellent portfolio at UPL, with products that not only protect the genetic potential of crops, but also improve overall health, vigour and yield. What makes our offering so strong is the combination of a range of extremely unique and differentiated proprietary solutions on the one hand, bundled with a broad portfolio of innovative and differentiated formulations on the other.
We are working to expand and diversify our products though, because today the majority of our sales are still based on two leading molecules: Rancona™ (Ipconazole) and Vitavax™ (Carboxin). For instance, of the 30 million hectares of soybeans grown in Brazil, around 6 million hectares are relying on a UPL product. Through our OpenAg™ purpose, we are always looking for new collaborations that grow our portfolio or our market access, and we recently partnered with Meiji Seika Pharma in Japan for exclusive access to Flupyrimin for Seed Treatment uses worldwide. This molecule represents a brand new mode of action that will help growers protect their crops against key insect pests.
How UPL sees this market evolving?
The seed treatment market has been growing at a significantly higher rate than the overall crop protection market and this trend is expected to continue over the next years. Among the reasons for such growth is the constant increase on the adoption of the seed treatment practice in many crops and the increasing investment that growers are making on their seeds. This leads to more productive varieties and biotechnology traits, which generate the need to invest more in seed treatment in order to protect their investment. The fastest growing segment in this industry is the use of biological solutions for seed treatment such as biostimulants and biological options that in some cases can even replace traditional synthetic molecules on controlling pests, diseases and nematodes. In this context UPL has been growing more than the market grows, especially due to geographic expansion to the 138 countries we are currently present in and also by having a unique approach of combining a highly differentiated biological and synthetic molecules including services to the grower.
What are the main crops for UPL seed treatment business?
If we look at the seed treatment market as a whole, we have three crops making up around 80% of the market, so when we are developing new technologies, we are always exploring new applications for soybean, corn, and cereals. But on the other hand, we work with farmers all over the world and reach 90% of the global food basket, and our commitment is to make every single food product more sustainable.
We have incredible strengths in some niche markets where the growers are in need for new solutions. Take the example of peanuts where UPL is the lead provider of seed treatment solutions in key markets such as USA and Argentina. The challenge to protect seeds and seedlings from soil and seedborne diseases on peanuts is bigger than in other crops and our portfolio is really the best-in-class to provide the proper establishment of the crop. In these two countries, around 70% of the cultivated area is being treated every year with UPL exclusive technologies for seed treatment including fungicides and biostimulants.
UPL is the lead provider of peanuts seed treatment solutions in key markets such as USA and Argentina.
How is UPL being customer centric in seed treatment?
There are two examples that illustrate how we are placing the needs of our customers at the heart of this business, but they both start with the need to be agile. Some customers need precision, others need ease, so we need to be a trusted technical partner. One of our major agribusiness customers have their corn seeds in more than 30 million acres of corn in USA, all of it receives a UPL product, an active ingredient that protects the genetic potential of the crop against soil and seedborne diseases. On the other hand, our downstream customers need ease of use at the farm level, and we just received approval for the first ever approved three-way mix seed treatment in India, including two fungicides and one insecticide, allowing growers to protect their crops against diseases and pests with the application of one single product.
At the grower level we have been focusing on easing the access to seed treatment as a service and on the digital connection between growers, their seed and their treatment. Across India, UPL has given 2,000 Electric Seed Treatment Mixer Machines in key villages where growers are able to treat their seeds using these machines at no cost to themselves, and are even able to borrow it for use within their own fields. By having access to these machines, growers are able to apply the treatment in a safe, uniform and timely manner – in one hour a machine is able to treat nearly 15 acres worth of seeds. Furthermore, each machine has a unique QR code to measure usage that has to be scanned by growers via the nurture.farm app allowing for machines to be moved from village to village based on the demand for the machines. In providing such an efficient, free and worthwhile service, UPL has been driving the seed treatment business in India to reach nearly 80 million hectares worth of seeds.
Where is UPL innovating?
One of the key areas where UPL is innovating is by bringing the Pronutiva concept to the seed treatment segment. Pronutiva is a program that combines the use of traditional synthetic molecules with differentiated biosolutions to increase the performance of the products and also the quality and yield of the crops. As a global leader also in biostimulants, UPL is leading the way on providing such solutions, like combining our Biozyme™ biostimulant within our seed treatment offer in millions of hectares in Brazil, where growers can benefit from a faster crop establishment and yield increases ranging from 4-10% on crops such as soybean.
UPL is also very active on this idea of ‘sustainability as a service’ where we see application and good agricultural practices as a bottleneck for growth, so we are working very closely with farmers on training and support. We are offering programs including services of seed treatment in many countries around the world. Our Hannaford business in Australia is a good example, where we have a fleet of specialised vehicles that go to the farm and treat farmers’ seeds with UPL products and solutions.
But we also recognise that there is a fascinating opportunity around soil health too – after all, soil health is critical for farmers because it is the starting point for crop production. We believe in the symbiosis of healthy seeds and healthy soils, and the benefits to the health and resilience of crops that come from an enhanced growth environment. UPL’s technologies for soil health can be deployed in-furrow, supporting treated seeds and providing growers with the most stimulating, optimal conditions for healthy, sustainable cultivation.
UPL’s approach to soil health also opens possibilities for the carbon sequestration potential in agricultural soils, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves soil health and also offers growers a new revenue stream through carbon credit programs.
UPL has put collaboration at the heart of innovation – we call it OpenAg, and it is the first, truly collaborative, global commitment to working with the entire food system to deliver positive change. OpenAg is a new model that brings together all the different players in the food system – from farmers to producers to consumers – in the spirit of collaboration to change the way the whole industry thinks, works and evolves.
One example is UPL's Hannaford business in Australia. The Hannaford business was founded in 1925 and is renowned as one of the pioneers of the seed grading and protection industry in Australia. Today Hannaford operates in several regions across Australia providing on-farm services that grade and protect the farmer’s seed every planting season with UPL branded seed treatments that are especially formulated to ensure the proper establishment of crops.
Working hand in hand with farmers, UPL and Hannaford are changing the game for sustainable agricultural development, soil and seed health, and on-field services.
This article was initially published in AgroPages's '2021 Seed Treatment Special' magazine.