A conversation between 2017 Youth Agriculture Summit (YAS) delegate Henning Windheim and Axel Trautwein, Head of Small Molecules at the Crop Science division of Bayer
Farming is in my blood. I was born and raised on a 180-hectare farm in Lower Saxony, Germany, where my family grows wheat, barley, canola, and sugar beets. We benefit from the fertile soils and regular rainfalls that enable us to produce high-quality crops year after year. Today, our farm is managed by my father and older brother, who always look for high-quality, sustainable solutions that allow us to do what we love now and in the future. However, farming doesn’t come without its struggles, and ever-evolving regulations and pest, disease and weed management challenges keep my family on its toes.
Growing up on a farm and seeing such complexities firsthand inspired me to pursue my master’s degree in agronomics and food economy, so that I ultimately can help bring new solutions to farmers. I recently heard about Bayer’s breakthrough in herbicide research – the first of its kind in nearly three decades. My family uses an integrated approach to combat weeds on our farm, but the potential for resistance remains a threat, as weeds are always adapting. A new tool to support holistic weed management would certainly be valuable. I recently connected with Axel Trautwein, Head of Small Molecules at Bayer Research & Development, Crop Science Division, to learn more about what a discovery of this kind could mean for farming families like mine.
Integrated weed management is a core component of sustainable agriculture. Why is the search for new weed control solutions so difficult to manage?
The world’s crops must compete with roughly 30,000 species of weeds for space, water, nutrients, and sunlight. Hundreds of millions of weed seeds might go undetected within each hectare of soil, and this volume can quickly overwhelm a farmer’s field and diminish productivity if left unmanaged. Herbicides have revolutionized agriculture but require careful management to prevent resistance. Integrated weed management (IWM) uses multiple control tactics to manage weeds. This practice can increase harvests and reduce the need for mechanical tillage, ultimately helping growers conserve water, minimize soil erosion and enhance soil health.
Though herbicides are a central and vital element of IWM, widespread weed resistance is still a major concern. Weeds have evolved resistance to 23 of the 26 known herbicide sites of action. When a weed becomes resistant to one herbicide’s mode of action (MoA), it also can become resistant to many, if not all, other herbicides with the same MoA — and sometimes even to herbicides acting on other MoAs. Therefore, it is important to consider resistance from the earliest phase of herbicide research. Finding a new herbicide MoA has proven to be an extremely difficult task, and the market has not seen a major new one in the past 30 years. Farmers have dealt with this problem by combining or rotating herbicides with different MoAs to reduce the threat and impact of weed resistance.
Simply put, farmers need novel herbicides in their toolbox.
How has Bayer responded to such global weed resistance concerns?
For many years, Bayer has led industry-wide promotion of integrated weed management (IWM). We continue to build our IWM knowledge by running thousands of samples to characterize mutations that lead to weed resistance. Over the years, we’ve redesigned our discovery approaches to seek new herbicides and MoAs, even as other companies reduced such efforts. We also built a fully-dedicated Weed Resistance Competence Center (WRCC) in Frankfurt, Germany. Overall, Bayer will invest €5 billion ($5.45 Billion) in weed management solutions, including the discovery of new herbicides, herbicide tolerance traits and digital solutions, throughout this decade.
We also have made exciting progress in our research. For the first time in 30 years, we are closer than ever to finding that elusive potential new herbicide for broad-acre weed control with a completely novel MoA.
What is different about Bayer’s approach to modern agricultural innovation?
At Bayer, we believe innovation, sustainability, and digital transformation are inextricably linked. To maintain our successful track record in innovation, we’ve changed our processes and work styles to promote efficiency and generate better ideas focusing on high-quality output — such as the prioritization of intensive safety testing in early research stages. This flexibility allows us to make smarter decisions and bring more sustainable products to the market faster. Our open innovation approach dispels the dangerous “not invented here” mindset by seeking collaborative ideas wherever they occur. One such example is our collaboration with Targenomix, where we share our expertise to find new MoAs for herbicide discovery.
We also understand the value of balance and asking the right questions to address current and future challenges. We encourage our scientists to question everything and never be satisfied with the status quo. The moment we stop questioning is the moment we stop moving forward – and that’s a risk we cannot afford to take. And, when we ask the right questions, we find the right balance in meeting today’s needs and those of the future: ensuring sustainability while promoting productivity; enabling prosperity through stewardship; and providing holistic solutions based on an extensive and integrated, yet flexible, R&D portfolio which includes breeding, chemistry, biotechnology and digitalization.
So, what happens next with this new discovery candidate?
We’re happy to say we’ve advanced this herbicide candidate to the early development phase of our R&D process. This means it has passed the initial biological performance trials and early safety testing period, which is where most discovery phase candidates are eliminated. Most people would be surprised to learn that the manufacturer — not the regulator – makes the decision to discontinue most new candidates. On average, only one out of every 160,000 screened chemical compounds reaches commercialization.
Before we can move a candidate to regulatory approval, we conduct rigorous safety tests and develop a manufacturing process. These tests include things like short and long-term toxicity assessments for humans, residue screening, efficacy trials, and ecotoxicological evaluation. While we’re excited about this candidate, we must also be patient. A discovery of this nature takes 11 years to evaluate on average, and we have only taken the first steps in this long process. If successful, we are aiming for this chemistry to enter the market in the late 2020s.
If successful, will this new discovery solve farming’s weed resistance concerns? What is Bayer doing to ensure that weeds won’t develop resistance to this candidate?
A farmer’s field is a dynamic ecosystem, and there is no “silver bullet” solution for such a constantly changing environment. If successful, this new candidate represents a critically important new tool for farmers. However, it is only one part of a fully integrated approach to weed management. That is why we must carefully and responsibly manage these new technologies so that farmers can safely and effectively use them for many years.
After these intensive research efforts, I cannot help but congratulate the dedicated scientists and the commercial visionaries who invest their time and energy into seeking new discoveries. Our work in Crop Production is vast – from developing lower-dose fungicides to insecticides with an increased safety profile and products that enable plants to improve their own health. We're looking at weed, disease, and pest management from every possible angle and questioning everything we do to fuel more sustainable practices. Each discovery — and every failure — adds to our institutional knowledge, upon which we can learn and grow. Because nature is not static, we will never stop searching for even more sustainable solutions.
My conversation with Axel left me both optimistic about the future of this new herbicide molecule candidate and also reflective about my own family’s experiences with weed management. While a holistic weed management system combining multiple control tactics is essential to staying on top of resistance issues, chemical weed control is a core enabler of achieving strong and sustainable yields. And as we look to the future and the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050, a new MoA might just be the key we’ve been looking for.