By Dilara Ally
Agriculture business leaders are always looking for new ways to share ideas and tools for innovation. The industry is at a crossroads where the status quo is not enough. Businesses need to find a way to protect the land and water in the face of changing weather while also producing crops more efficiently.
I recently attended American Seed Trade Association (ASTA)’s CSS 2018 & Seed Expo in Chicago, and what I learned and hadn’t previously appreciated was how many different factors can influence what comes out of the R&D pipeline of an AgInputs company. These include not only the increasing extremes of climate and weather patterns, but also the volatility of both global and national politics, interest rates, trade, and consumer buying patterns. A conference like ASTA is an amazing experience because it brings together companies – involved in early-stage technologies, seed production and distribution, farming equipment, retail, and related industries in North America – all in one place: Chicago. It’s an indispensable opportunity for industry participants and leaders to come together to discuss the new opportunities, as well as new challenges, they are facing.
During the event, leaders at large aginput companies including Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, and Corteva AgriSciences outlined at a high level where their focus will be in the future. In addition, I attended sessions on plant breeding innovations, precision and digital agriculture, just to name a few.
Here was one of the most interesting talks at the event tackling big industry challenges:
The Majors After the Mergers – What Does the Future Hold?
This session started after Dan Basse, President of AgResource, demonstrated how cross-current themes in the markets could impact what to do, as an AgInputs industry, moving forward. Some of the ideas that he highlighted included central banks raising interest rates, uncertain politicians, trade conflict, changes in the world wheat market, corn and soy supplies, increasing weather pattern volatility, and the growing importance of China. Leadership from the seed and aginput business’ four largest companies weighed in on what this major transitional year meant to agriculture. Each panelist provided their perspective on what the future looks like the industry and what opportunities they foresee for the seed business.
The most personal realization that I made was how long each of the four leaders – Jim Collins (CEO-elect, Corteva AgriScience), Scott Kay (VP US Crop, BASF), Jeff Rowe (President Global Seeds NA, China) and Lisa Safarian (Commercial Head of Commercial Operations, Bayer Crop Science) – had been in the industry. Their combined years of experience in the seed industry is over 100 years! Collectively, they must have personally seen significant shifts and transformations in the agricultural sector regarding technology innovation and consumer values.
All argued that the status quo would not be enough and that with the demographic evolution in consumer composition, we are seeing a shift in consumer behavior that is driving change to the ag space. Millennials have a different view on their food, and how they want it sourced, that is different from other generations. The industry must work to adapt to these new requirements in the face of unpredictable weather patterns.
My favorite quote from the panel was from Scott Kay, who said,
“When you focus on possibilities, you will have more opportunities.”
All of these leaders were thinking about how to do this by investing in digital technologies, which they believe will drive a transformation in agriculture.
As Lisa Safarian underscored, farming is becoming more complex and difficult. Farmers want tools that help them make the best decision based on data, deliver best-tailored solutions that match the differences across fields and within 1m in a field, and reduce risk and optimize performance. To do this, she highlighted that it would require investments on par with the type of R&D investments that Google, Microsoft, and Intel made in technology. Safarian’s own journey captured the integration journey of digital into traditional agriculture because she didn’t grow up on a farm. Instead, she started in IT and is now the Head of Commercial Operations of a major aginput player.
Finally, the panel ended with a discussion on diversity in agriculture and Jeff Rowe of Syngenta, in one of the most personal moments of the talk, admitted that the industry had not done a good job despite the benefits it brings, e.g., diverse teams perform better at solving hard problems. Given the complexity and difficulty of the ag industry’s challenges, it makes sense with the need for “outside-in innovation” coined by Jim Collins that integrating diversity could help to build those solutions to meet farmers’ needs and at the same time understand consumers’ concerns.
In my next blog post, I’ll share my thoughts on two presentations from the event showcasing how we should be approaching digital agriculture and innovation.
About Dilara Ally
Dilara Ally is a Solutions Manager at CiBO Technologies, a science-driven software startup. She lives at the intersection of people, the business, data, and technical expertise. Throughout her career, she has led business critical, strategic initiatives, including one focused on the implementation of cross-functional data management and data analytics. Prior to joining CiBO, she was the Data Science Lead for the Biologics site in Bayer Crop Science, where she spent five years working in and across geographies and functions, prior to that she worked at SG Biofuels Inc for two years building a molecular breeding program and supporting both field and lab science using data science and bioinformatics. She holds a PhD in Plant Statistical Genetics from The University of British Columbia.