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Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Healthy agro-ecosystems for sustainable business

The demands on agriculture are currently changing dramatically due to wealth and population increases, climate change and related matters. All of these put tremendous pressure on land. There is no rational alternative to increasing yields per hectare, since available land is finite and further encroachment into wildlife habitats is not a viable option.

The current rate of species extinction and levels of degrading ecosystems raise important questions for agricultural businesses. A key question for us as a company is: can a business case be made that supports efforts to promote agro-ecosystems health and biodiversity conservation? The answer is a resounding yes. Providing farmers — small and large holder farmers alike — with innovative technologies to manage agro-ecosystems effectively secures the agricultural production base in the long-term and is thus fundamental to the sustainability of their business … and ours.

Crop technology R&D integrates conservation
An obligation we have as a crop science company is to take a holistic view of any potential effects our technologies might have on agro-ecosystems. Hence, we incorporate biodiversity protection aspects into our Research and Development (R&D) activities and are continuously pushing the science further. The introductions of new pesticides and new crop varieties take as long as ten years from initial discovery to first commercialization. Indeed, in view of the intended use of pesticides, their potential effects not only on human beings but also on the environment are researched exhaustively, making them the most thoroughly studied chemicals worldwide. Protecting species and ecosystems requires a thorough understanding of these products. Therefore research includes basic laboratory studies, sophisticated testing in the field and waterpond trials (see pictrue below) to assess interactions between products and the ecosystems.

Sparing use of natural resources
Technologies best fulfil their purposes when they enable our customers, the farmers, to adopt farming practices that conserve natural resources. Hence, our experts direct additional efforts towards targeted crop protection measures, including seed treatment, devices to apply products more precisely, such as stem injectors, and computer-based tools that better forecast the development of pests. All of these approaches allow farmers to adjust their pest-management strategies towards when and where required.

One example of targeted pest-management is seed treatment. Treating seeds, rather than the whole field, reduces the amount of area exposed by 95%, while only the target pests are managed and beneficial insects living both on and in the crop are safeguarded. Another example is insect-resistant crops, which also spare beneficial Insects. Both approaches additionally save fuel, water and labour.

Learning from the field
To address the needs of agro-ecosystems health, there is also much to be learned and done at the farm level. We cooperate with many partners to further develop farming practices that enhance biodiversity. For instance, in 2007 our colleagues in the UK opened Biodiversity Centres on the company’s Research farms to evaluate measures such as the establishment of beetle banks, hedgerows, and ponds on farm biodiversity. The lessons learned are shared with farmers, distributors, agricultural consultants and the wider community to stimulate replication. In Brazil, we initiated a project to restore farmland surrounding a lake. About 8,000 native trees (63 species) were planted, with the result that soil erosion has been reduced, water flow stabilized and many native wildlife species have returned. During the pilot project a manual was developed, which gives directions on how to grow native plants. This encouraged scaling-up and has resulted so far in the planting of more than 100,000 native trees.

Looking forward
To achieve the goal of producing both enough food and non-food crops in a sustainable way, focus must be directed towards more outcome-oriented, biodiversity-enhancing measures. These need to be tailored and properly assessed to reflect the local situation. Market mechanisms, such as certification schemes, which take a holistic approach and clearly contribute to biodiversity enhancement at farm level should be developed by professionals, farmers, government bodies and other stakeholders to suit the ‘terroir’ hence the site specific needs. These initiatives should add commercial value and be an incentive for farmers. The concept is to turn a set of apparent constraints to farmers and the agri-food industry into a win-win and profitable situation. However, a quantum leap in cooperation and co-ordination between all stakeholders is now required. To help healthy agro-ecosystems, our company is ready to share its expertise in natural resource management, project management, agronomy, biology and other areas and to learn from others.

As an R&D-based company, we rely on stringent, science-based and predictable regulatory systems, which stimulate technology innovation rather than impede their development. We call, therefore, on governments to provide enabling policy and market-framework conditions at national, regional and international levels that support investments in agriculture and strengthen Research to close knowledge gaps on the interactions between agriculture, technology and biodiversity.

Neither intensive agriculture that denies agro-ecosystem health nor extensive production systems that require more land to feed a growing population are sustainable. It is imperative to find a middle way forward. Rather than looking at agriculture in a segmented way, integration is necessary. An equally integrative policy framework is therefore also required to achieve a healthy agricultural production that fully realizes its potential.

Jacques du Puy is Executive Committee Member of Bayer CropScience.