Pressure on to lift yields

19 Oct, 2015 01:00 AM
The task of successfully selecting a formula that actually works is no mean feat.

Syngenta At A Glance

  • The world's leading crop protection product supplier
  • 20pc of the crop protection market
  • Operates in 90 countries
  • Employs 28,000 staff, including 5000 in research and development
  • Group sales exceeded $20b in 2014 (including $2.6b in cereal markets, $4.6 in corn, $4.1 in soybeans, and $2.3 in vegetables)
  • Seed sales represent 22pc of the business

  • THE pressure to lift cropping yields to feed a booming global population and keep farmers one step ahead of their soaring production costs is starkly obvious - and challenging - for those in the plant research game.

    In the 1960s one in every 11,000 active ingredients discovered by crop protection researchers was able to be harnessed and then developed as a cost effective and marketable farm chemical.

    Today the odds are less than one in about 140,000.

    New environmental challenges, tightening regulatory controls and fewer obvious molecules to work with have made the science behind agricultural productivity not just more time consuming and rigorously discriminatory, but far more high tech and costly.

    Given crop protection chemistry is estimated to annually boost the world's food production capacity by about 40 per cent above what could otherwise be harvested, the pressure is on researchers not to just maintain the effectiveness of current man-made inputs, but find better products to lift productivity even further to feed a 9 billion population within 35 years.

    The journey those new agricultural chemicals take before they can be released for farm use is typically up to 12 years, generally starting at research nerve centres like the 260-hectare Jealott's Hill facility in the UK, owned by global agribusiness giant Syngenta.

    Syngenta puts the cost of discovering the right compounds, then developing, trialling, registering and marketing just one new active ingredient as a new chemical product at a hefty $380 million over that decade-plus period.

    The company has released a new active ingredient to form the basis of its new products every year since 2008.

    These have subsequently contributed to its launch of more than 600 new agrochemical lines for weed, insect or fungal control in different parts of the world during that period.

    Some of today's crop spray formulations contain up to eight active ingredients (the most complex on the market has 20).

    But given all these ingredients are capable of reacting differently when mixed with each other or water, or exposed to sunlight or storage conditions, the task of successfully selecting a formula that actually works is no mean feat.

    To fund its global crop protection and plant breeding research effort - which ranges from trial plots on Australian grain and horticulture farms to science laboratories and greenhouses at huge research centres in the US, China, India, Switzerland and Britain - Syngenta spends $2 billion annually on research and development.

    Its largest and most diverse research hub is Jealott's Hill in Berkshire, about 100 kilometres west of London.

    Australian and New Zealand Syngenta Growth Awards tour team in front of glasshouse facilities at the Jealott's Hill research centre in Berkshire, UK.

    More like a university campus than the sort of agricultural research station Australian farmers and agronomists are familiar with, the agrochemical research and product support facility employs about 800 staff, including 600 scientists.

    About 200 alone work in roles relating specifically to ensuring products are safe for human use and the environment.

    Jealotts Hill and its sister facility developing fungicides and insecticides at Stein in Switzerland were the focus of recent visit by Australian and New Zealand farmers and agronomists who won Syngenta Growth Awards titles last December.

    Sited on a historic farm where a few 16th Century buildings still stand, the research station was established in 1927 by the former Imperial Chemical Company (ICI).

    Jelotts Hill scientists have discovered many of the world's most valued crop protection products, including more recent broadacre herbicide names such as Amistar, Cruiser and Callistar (derived from the Australian bottlebrush plant) and the broad spectrum paraquat (Gramoxone), released in 1962 and still globally popular.

    "It is an exciting place to work," said centre outreach manager and agricultural chemist, Jim Morton.

    With young faces definitely outnumbering older "boffins" working in the glass houses and laboratories, he observed the site's high technology appeal and reputation in scientific circles made it a popular career choice for younger entrants into agricultural research.

    Key activities at the site include research into discovery of new active ingredients, new formulation technologies to develop products from existing ingredients and specialist work in protein science and bioscience.

    Jealott's Hill boasts Europe's biggest research glasshouse area, covering 4000 square metres, enabling many crops from corn to melons to be trialled in a range of climatic conditions.

    The centre also has test areas which realistically simulate vastly varied rainfall conditions from mist to sub-tropical downpours, and a newly prized $8b Artemis robotic compound compatibility testing system which cuts a year's conventional laboratory test work down to just two weeks - and does the job with much more analytical depth.

    A "library" of more than a million different compounds ranging from fungi to leaf extracts and bee stings provides the basis for initial discovery work in the research laboratories, which test and re-test more than 50,000 each year to find a useful match for a potential problem.

    Andrew Marshall travelled to Europe as a guest of Syngenta.

    Andrew Marshall

    Andrew Marshall

    is the national agribusiness writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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