In many ways, feeding the hungry and working to alleviate poverty is in my genetic makeup. Beyond the food-filled holiday gatherings with family that I cherish, I’ve also learned how my grandparents worked to support the local community and serve their country during difficult times. As a young pharmacist in the Philippines, my grandmother was determined to help those in need. She started a soup kitchen during the war and, as a scientist, she was compelled to serve others much like I am today.
As a first-generation immigrant in the United States, my family encouraged me to dream big. My dad was a strong proponent of STEM careers which influenced my decision to seek out a career that would make a big impact. Growing up, he would say, “You’re good at math, Stella! You should be an engineer or a doctor.”
My passion for science led me to become a different sort of doctor…a plant doctor. I earned my PhD in plant breeding, the science of improving crops. Simply put, plant breeding is the process of using two parent plants to create an “offspring” plant. Just like people, plants have a story behind them, and when we study a plant’s genetic makeup, we can unravel the story of what makes each plant strong enough to feed and support local communities. Inside a plant is DNA that serves as an instruction manual for cells and shows us what traits can help or hinder longevity.
Many agricultural challenges we tackle start at the molecular level. Sequencing a crop’s DNA and analyzing the similarities and differences in a plant’s genome offer scientists insights into the value plants will bring to farmers like which plants carry traits that will help them overcome environmental challenges like pests, disease or drought. After years of research, building on past successes and leveraging tools for the future, plant breeders breed for these specific traits such that the resulting crops are stronger and more resilient, helping farmers achieve better harvests in the face of climate change and limited natural resources.
We have vastly improved our ability to study plants using digital tools. Less and less do we need rulers to take plant measurements in the field. Now, we can use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones to collect better data at scale with timeliness, precision and accuracy. This data helps us understand the characteristics of potential products and performance under specific growing conditions, which enables efficiency in breeding the next generation of genetics that are tailored for specific regions, climates and soil types. Today, every seed a farmer plants should be backed by data.
Plant breeding is no longer just for plant breeders. Our team at Bayer is filled with experts in data science, quantitative genetics, math, engineering, soil and environmental sciences, statistics, IT, physics, agronomy…the list goes on and on. We bring different perspectives to the table with the common goal of contributing to something bigger than ourselves. Together we will deliver greater value.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see the impact of scientific advances in agriculture firsthand working with all farmers, including smallholder farmers (from subsistence farmers to small-scale farmers who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares) in Asia and Africa. These farmers are responsible for 80 percent of the food that is consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. There have been tremendous improvements in plant breeding and seed systems and yet still, of the 820 million people currently suffering from chronic hunger, half of them are smallholder farmers. This is largely due to a lack of access to modern farming techniques and technologies.
There is no one size fits all solution to helping farmers. Every solution must be tailored to meet the needs of an individual farmer in their specific field. Our team delivers data-backed solutions to farmers. But technology is only one part of the equation. Knowledge transfer or capacity building is critical to empowering smallholder farmers. Plant breeders like myself travel across the world to help train local farmers and scientists on modern breeding techniques, so they are empowered with these skills and tools.
Several years ago, I traveled to Ethiopia with USAID Feed the Future. Volunteering with Catholic Relief Services, I served as a Farmer-to-Farmer technology transfer expert tasked with teaching 44 plant scientists everything I knew about plant breeding. As much as I was there to teach these passionate young scientists, they were teaching me about the unique challenges they see firsthand that aren’t written about in textbooks or research articles. In my work then, and in my work now, I’m continuously reminded of the opportunity that exists when you bring together different experiences, a passion towards a common goal, and advances in technology for the greater good.
We cannot solve the challenges farmers are facing alone. We must partner to help support sustainable economic growth in smallholder communities. At Bayer, we’re involved in several partnerships but the one I’m closest to is with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Together, we’ve joined forces with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture to share our know-how in technology advancements with plant breeders so they can increase genetic gain in countries like Mali and Nigeria. Beyond our walls in R&D, our main partners are farmers themselves who have a seat at the table to tell us what kinds of technologies and seeds they need to thrive.
For me, this is more than our corporate responsibility, it’s my personal responsibility to make a meaningful impact on the lives of farmers around the world. Because at the end of the day, the opportunities through science, technology and partnerships are endless. It’s in my genes to push boundaries and expand horizons, and it is my personal responsibility to help feed the world sustainably.
Until we can get the hungriest places, the most malnourished places fed and able to feed themselves, my work is not done. Our work is not done.
As Head of Development & Deployment in Analytics & Pipeline Design for Bayer’s Crop Science division, Stella Salvo is responsible for delivering new technologies to plant breeding programs worldwide furthering the adoption of innovations developed by Bayer teams in data science, genomics, phenomics and analytics. She holds a PhD and MS in Plant Breeding and Genetics from the University of Wisconsin and Colorado State University, respectively, along with a BS in International Agronomy from Purdue University. Stella manages a modern breeding project with the Gates Foundation in partnership with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. She has volunteered in Sub-Saharan Africa with USAID teaching plant breeding and genomics in Mali and Ethiopia