Seed World

The Stars are Aligning | January 2014



The need to feed a growing global population continues to drive innovations in the seed industry. The ag industry is increasingly challenged to produce more with less — where will we find more land to grow next year’s crop, how can we increase yields but use less resources, what regulations need to change so we can ensure our crops can be traded around the world — and Canada is in a great position to provide the solutions to these challenges.

“The future is really bright for the seed industry,” says Canadian Seed Trade Association CEO Patty Townsend. “The focus of our government on creating an environment that will foster investment and innovation, and the work to open up markets around the world, send a great signal for potential private sector investors both inside and outside of Canada. Advances in technology delivered in and on the seed are being made at an increasing rate, and farmers are embracing change and finding new and expanded markets.”

Optimism for the seed industry’s future is at an all-time high, and the proof is in the investment dollars. Every five years CSTA conducts a survey on investment in plant breeding, research and variety development. “It helps us benchmark the role that our private sector members have in delivering innovation to Canada’s farmers and the Canadian economy,” says Townsend.

In 2007, the private sector invested just over $56 million in plant breeding, research and variety development. In 2012, the investment was $99.5 million. The projection for 2013 was $106.5 million and the five-year projection for investment in 2017 is $147.5 million.

“I think people would be the most surprised with the projections for spending in cereals, specifically wheat,” says Townsend. “In 2007 the projection was pretty gloomy. The private sector expected to be spending only two per cent of its investments in cereal research and plant breeding by 2012, but investment actually increased from 2007 to 8.3 per cent. The projections for 2017 are that over 13 per cent of private sector investment will be in cereals, more than in soybeans in Canada. I think this is an indication of the optimism that is being created with promised changes to the regulatory and intellectual property environment in Canada.”

The bottom line is that there is very strong demand for seed and that will only continue to grow, not only domestically, but internationally.

Starts with Seed
“Seed companies have a lot of opportunities because we have to feed a really hungry planet,” says Matthias Haug, head of SeedGrowth for Bayer CropScience. “Therefore, we have to maximize our harvest—quality-wise and quantity-wise—over the next years. It’s really important.”

Karsten Neuffer, global head of Seedcare for Syngenta, agrees. “By 2050 we will have at least nine billion people on this planet, and that clearly adds greatly to the global food security challenge,” he says. “We believe we can make a strong contribution towards addressing that challenge. Our ambition is to help the world achieve greater food security to by creating a step change in agricultural productivity. Most importantly we have to feed a growing global population in an environmentally friendly way. To help achieve this, Syngenta recently announced a long-term program called The Good Growth Plan. One of its key commitments is to increase productivity of 20 million smallholder farmers by 50 per cent by 2020 without using more land, water and other scarce resources.”

This need to feed the world is driving innovation in the seed industry today. And perhaps no other sector within the seed industry is as focused on that goal as the seed treatment and enhancement sector. Last year, Bayer launched SeedGrowth, its fully integrated and comprehensive system for on-seed applications, while Syngenta has been increasing its focus on its Seed Care lineup of products. The emphasis is not just on crop protection products anymore, but rather companies such as Bayer and Syngenta are looking at seed treatment from a broader perspective—spending millions of dollars on how on-seed applications can increase yield.

“We really need the maximum protection for seeds in the future in order to produce a maximum harvest,” says Haug.

“With today’s focus on increasing farm productivity, clearly Seedcare is one of the most essential tools in the grower’s tool box,” adds Neuffer. “Not only does it provide a significant impact on a farm’s yields, but it’s also one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies out there, which usually comes with some of the lowest dose rates in terms of an application. That makes it one of the most exciting advances to look forward to.”

Rapid growth in the seed treatment and enhancement sector signifies that Neuffer is right—seed care is one of the most essential tools in every seed company’s portfolio today.

“The seed treatment market will continue to provide attractive growth. The total market is currently valued at about $3 billion and it seems likely it will continue to grow at double-digit rates,” says Neuffer, adding that the main factor that is supporting the growth will continue to be the incremental value seed treatments are bringing to farmers, such as its new seed applied nematicide Clariva “which usually translates into an incremental return on the investment for the farmers of roughly three-to-one.”

“That’s an awfully exciting outlook. At Syngenta we are fully committed to Seedcare  and we are making a particular effort to bring that technology to all our customers, but most importantly to seed companies who provide the products in a very professional and industrial way,” Neuffer says.

“With all these new traits coming online, seed retailers really have to understand traits and the positioning of them. Retailers have to sit down with their growers and do a field-by-field plan. ”
– Tim Wellbanks, lead agronomist for Maizex Seeds

Holistic Approach
What’s happening in the seed treatment sector signifies a larger movement that is occurring throughout the entire seed industry — a more holistic approach to selling seed.

“It’s much more than only selling products for profit. It’s a holistic view and we’ve got the full picture because we are experts in seed growth overall,” says Haug.  According to him, the seed industry is becoming more focused on bigger picture issues such as sustainability and growth across the entire value chain.

“It’s a really different view from just thinking about, say, seed treatment on its own. And we went away from that view because seed treatment means normally only the application of the chemical product, and we want to ensure we are securing sustainable, healthy, protected and strong plant growth,” says Haug. “By following a more holistic approach, we create more value for the farmer, by increasing and improving their business growth in the future.”

Innovation and Evolution
There is no doubt innovation is causing the industry to evolve at a rapid pace, and perhaps that is most prevalent in the forage and turf sector. Lloyd Dyck, chairman of BrettYoung Seeds, says this sector has come a long way in the 80-year history of the company.

“Eighty years ago the forage and turf business was mainly common seed. Farmers would grow forage and turf species in a rotation or on a spec basis, the seed would be processed and blended to meet the quality specifications of a particular market like purity or germination. It’s changed dramatically,” says Dyck.

Today, the marketplace for forage and turf worldwide has changed to improved varieties of grasses and turf species. They are tested, bred and grown under contract with agronomists to produce the seed. After the production process, there is extensive quality testing and then packaging and marketing before, finally, the sale of the product.

“Instead of being a three-step process 80 years ago, now it’s a process that’s 15 steps long; it takes years and years to bring one product to market, and the amount invested in each variety has gone up dramatically,” says Dyck. “A tremendous lot has changed, and it seems the whole world is evolving that way. It used to be that some markets were more common seed and other ones were more improved species, but it’s all going the improved species way and it only makes sense that it does that.”

More and more traits will continue to hit the marketplace in all crops, says Erin Armstrong, director, research and product development at Canterra Seeds. “We need to have a continual introduction of new varieties into the portfolio because farmers are always looking for better performance. What’s going to yield better, what’s going to have the better disease package and, ideally, what is going to have greater demand,” she says. “We spend a lot of time with end users, especially for crop types such as milling wheats, milling oats and malting barleys, trying to understand their needs and then looking as early as we can in the screening process and the evaluation process at possible matches between a particular company’s needs and the material we have coming through. The sooner that link can be made, the stronger their interest in that variety is going to be.”

Product Positioning Critical
However, according to Tim Welbanks, lead agronomist for Maizex Seeds, the increase of new-and-improved traits on the market brings its own challenge—and means seed retailers have a pretty big job to do.

“With all these new traits coming online, seed retailers really have to understand traits and the positioning of them. Retailers have to sit down with their growers and do a field-by-field plan. It’s very important that they understand the traits and make sure they get the right trait on the right acre to get the maximum benefit out of those traits,” says Welbanks.

“In the future, it’s going to be even more complicated because we’ve got different herbicide tolerances. For example, there is the Enlist technology versus the Extend technology in soybeans and they are not cross-tolerant; therefore, it’s going to be extremely important that the grower knows what herbicide tolerance he has on what farm or acreage because the potential mistake he can make is pretty big.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Harmonizing regulations has long been a focus of the seed industry, but with the global trade of seed increasing, ensuring seed regulations are standardized and functional across borders is more important today than ever before. And Canada is leading the way.

“In 2012, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made the development of an international low-level presence policy a priority for Canada,” says Townsend.

The process started with work to develop a Canadian domestic policy that could be an example for other countries. “However, that work evolved to focus only on grain for food, feed and processing, excluding seed. Therefore, CSTA requested that a separate process be started to focus on seed. This is a very important process for our members. After the United States, countries in the EU are the largest markets for Canadian seed and, as you know, most EU countries have zero tolerances for genetically modified products. Our members regularly face increased regulatory requirements, and often loss of markets because of this.”

Townsend says a working group was established early this year, with her chairing the group. “Like the grain process, the objective is to work towards the development of a domestic policy for LLP [low-level presence] in seed that can be a template for policy internationally,” she says.

Townsend says the following progress has been made so far:

• Completed an environmental scan of the issue, looking at how LLP in seed is currently being addressed in Canada and other countries. How does seed differ from grain? What has been the impact of zero tolerances? It also contains an overview of domestic and international seed quality standards.

• Developed a definition for LLP in seed — “This may not seem like a big accomplishment, but there are so many technical nuances around biotechnology and approvals and risk assessments, and international interpretations are so different,” says Townsend.

• Developed a glossary of terms — this is still a work in progress, but, “we have a really good start to help us and others ensure that we are all talking about the same thing when we use terms like biotechnology, low-level presence, adventitious presence and others,” she says.

Townsend says the working group is now working on a considerations paper to try to define the possible scope of a domestic low-level presence policy for seed, so that it can clearly define its objectives. “Recently the LLP in seed working group was incorporated into the work of the National Seed Sector Value Chain Roundtable,” she says. “I hope that the process will benefit from more engagement on the part of industry and the government, and that we can develop an issues and options paper for consultations in 2014.”

As 2014 plays out, and the world population continues to climb, more and more eyes will be on agriculture and its ability to produce more food. Townsend believes the Canadian seed industry will continue stepping up to meet the challenge.

“The stars are aligning for Canada to become a leader in seed and seed-delivered innovation and for our farmers to lead the effort to feed, fuel and clothe a growing population,” she says. 

Julie McNabb