Adrian Percy

Demystifying Science – Built to Last

How agricultural innovations are making farming more productive – and more sustainable.

This summer, my family enjoyed our traditional vacation at a beautiful beach in North Carolina. Although my kids are no longer interested in making sand castles, I look back on those memories with great fondness. Building what we thought were magnificent cathedrals of sand was always fun, even though we knew our creation would quickly vanish with the approaching tide.

Back at work, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to build something that is truly lasting. History’s great structures (the pyramids or the Great Wall) naturally come to mind, but if I consider my own company, I have to conclude that it too was built to last. After all, Bayer has managed a successful business for more than 150 years, which is pretty amazing considering that most companies fail within the first few years of their existence. So what is it about Bayer that defines its longevity? I believe much of it has to do with a constant drive to reinvent itself through a commitment to science and innovation.

Nowhere is the need for innovation excellence more important than in agriculture. To paraphrase the legendary American football coach, Vince Lombardi, ‘innovation isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.’ With a rising world population, changing climate, evolving pests, and demands for more sustainable foods, there has never been a greater need for innovation. By 2050, farmers will have to grow 60 percent more food than they do now, all without any significant increases in the amount of farmland. So, how can scientific innovation achieve this?

Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.

Fortunately, agriculture has a good track record. During the 1960s, amid concerns of a global famine, Dr. Norman Borlaug started the “Green Revolution” by introducing modern farming practices to developing countries – saving an estimated one billion people from starvation. Better seed varieties, fertilizers, planters, diagnostics, chemicals (organic and synthetic), applicators, and harvesters have all played a role in making farming more productive. These tools were born from an innovative spirit and help explain why today’s average farm can feed a hundred more people than it did in 1950.

With recent innovations in plant breeding, we stand on the threshold of exciting opportunities, using a plant’s natural genetic variability to develop new crops quickly and precisely, based on the fundamental processes that have guided traditional plant breeders for hundreds of years. These new methods like CRISPR will help create crops that can better withstand the evolving pressures from insects, weeds, diseases and adverse weather conditions. I’ve had scientists say that they’ve never been as excited about anything in their decades of experience as they are about plant breeding innovation. That’s the spark of creativity we need for the future.

One reason innovative companies can stand the test of time is because they don’t have a “not invented here” mentality. While most businesses excel in certain areas, the best ones are eager to work with others to build on their collective ideas. For example, Bayer and the Citrus Research and Development Foundation recently signed a collaboration agreement to find solutions to Citrus Greening, a disease threatening global citrus production and the juice industry. Florida, the second-largest producer of orange juice worldwide, has seen its production drop by 60 percent over the past decade due to this disease, which is vectored by an invasive insect species. This project will involve the efforts of public and private researchers, as well as the sponsorship of growers and large companies, and is an example of how we must all work together if we are to find answers to tomorrow’s questions.

I understand that new technologies borne from novel research can seem a little scary to people who only want to know their family’s food is safe and nutritious. Everyone involved in agriculture wants exactly the same thing, but as I recently discussed, we must better explain, in a way the general public can understand and appreciate, why these innovations are so vital. Most importantly, we need to explain why blindly following the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

For example, innovation in agriculture is not just making farming more productive, it’s making it more sustainable, too. While some people conjure up images of “slash and burn” or “dust bowl” when they think about farming, the reality is exactly the opposite. Many people are surprised when I tell them about family farms that have remained productive and in continuous operation for more than a century. These farms aren’t exhausting the earth’s resources: they’re conserving them by reducing soil erosion and water and energy use. They’re the very definition of sustainability.

The adage, “less is more” certainly applies to innovative farming practices. New crop protection chemicals, both biologically and synthetically produced, are better at attacking the pest and not the beneficial wildlife so important to biodiversity. Digital farming combines a farmer’s expertise with cutting-edge technologies to improve local decision-making and reduce inputs using prescription applications – right down to the smallest footprint of land. It may seem counter-intuitive, but “big data” will actually make farming smaller – more personalized and less “one size fits all.”

The land that produces our food is a precious, but limited commodity. Because it will be called upon year after year to feed a growing world, we must do all that we can to protect and nurture it. Unlike the temporary houses of sand that my family built on the beach, innovations in agriculture are helping to ensure that today’s farms are truly built to last.

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