What Ag Needs: Accelerating Technology to Secure The Future

October 19, 2020 |

By Jim Collins, CEO, Corteva Agriscience

Special to The Digest

Adapted with permission from two of Jim’s most recent articles, here and here.

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an engaging and thought-provoking discussion at the World Food Prize, titled “Investment Innovations for Food System Transformations.” One of the questions posed to the panel was, “How can we increase investment in technology and innovation for high-impact, evidence-based solutions?”

It made me think about the farmers we serve and how they – as stewards of the land – have a long history of innovation and investment as they feed, preserve and protect the planet. Inspired by their resilience, we’re working to rethink our industry’s future and mission to feed our rapidly-growing population through sustainable technologies, tools and practices.

At Corteva, we believe the best strategy to enable more investment in important, high-impact technology is through collaboration with others across the business, government, NGO and academic landscape.

Our partner-with-society approach has led to successful collaborations with private and public organizations like Land O’Lakes, Danone, The Nature Conservancy and CGIAR, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research about food security. Another example is our partnership with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard that enables us to provide access, at low or no cost, to CRISPR technology for universities and the public sector.

Circular economy thinking

I also shared that we recently started collaborating with Microsoft to apply circular-economy thinking and technology to transform agriculture and the broader food system. Circular economies have largely been a staple with fast-moving consumer goods companies, and we are certain we can apply this approach to grow food in a way that benefits the environment and creates ecosystem assets such as sequestered carbon and improved water quality.

The idea is simple: keep more resources and materials in use on the farm for as long as possible, positioning production agriculture as a cycle – rather than a linear output system – which produces more with less.

Farmers are already experts at reusing resources and reducing waste in their operations, and we’re developing new technologies and tools to help them do more, and to do it profitably.

For example, we’re working with Microsoft on conservation practices and aim to develop innovative approaches to manage the resulting ecosystem assets. We’re working to help farmers create a consistent supply, facilitate reliable and secure transactions, and stimulate a sustainable demand among buyers. Together, we are focused on leveraging these practices to create additional potential revenue streams for our customers and, ultimately, create value for our owners.

We know that highly efficient operations that produce more, while also producing less greenhouse gas emissions, enable farmers – and Corteva – to achieve both their business and sustainability goals. At the end of the day, when it comes to innovation and transformation, our best inspiration is the farmers we work alongside.

What Ag Needs

In late April, working in my library, wearing jeans, I found myself on a conference call with the president of the United States.

Alongside a bipartisan collection of business and labor leaders called upon to collaborate for the common good, here was an opportunity to be of service to our country during a crisis and, most significantly, to relay urgent points on behalf of farmers and the agricultural industry.

Last June, when Corteva officially launched as the largest pure-play agriculture company in the world, we made a commitment to enrich the lives of producers and consumers around the world. We also built a bold, sustainability-driven vision for the future of farming, and we structured ourselves to lead that effort as public advocates. Whatever the challenges that confront our industry, we take them head on. Whenever farmers need to be heard, we endeavor to raise their voices.

I remain committed to bringing agriculture’s voice to the table. From testifying before Congress, to participating in last year’s “White House Summit on the Bioeconomy,” to having Corteva’s Regulatory Affairs and Government and Industry Affairs teams consistently compose thoughtful responses during public commentary periods, we continue to advocate for customers. Of course I have fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, but I am also an American citizen who cares deeply about the health of our nation and the future we share — environmentally and otherwise — with the world. Our 21,000 dedicated professionals serve communities across more than 140 countries. Our commitment to enriching lives and the land doesn’t end at the American border, but it starts here.

Given this track record of advocacy, it wasn’t a total surprise when the White House Office invited us to participate. It was a pleasure to join Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, on the call. President Duvall is on record saying 2020 went from looking like an opportunity “to kick up and get back to normal” to proving “very difficult” for American growers. “You name it; we’ve been through it,” he lamented. We all know of what he speaks, and no one knows it better than a farmer.

What role can Ag play? What policies will support Ag’s success?

To share my thoughts and concerns at adequate length, I arranged a follow-up with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and also drafted a letter for President Trump. In short, I saw my role and responsibility within the administration’s “Great American Economic Revival” initiative to definitively address two urgent questions: 1) What role should the agriculture industry and America’s farmers play in restoring the global economy? and 2) What policies will best support their success?

Without question, the global food chain will take time to fully recover from COVID-19, and this period of rebalancing will inhibit the ag industry’s ability to reinvest in American innovation and sustainable solutions, diminishing our capacity to compete globally via industry-leading technology. This is why I stressed that, as soon as possible, we need to provide U.S. farmers with the stability and certainty they need to make buying decisions. To that end, I relayed Corteva’s areas of focus for a healthy agriculture value chain going forward:

1Access to labor

2Access to capital

3Trade market access

4Investment in infrastructure

To elaborate on these key mandates, I have drawn the following points from letters I composed to President Trump and the USDA:

Access to labor can roughly be thought of as boots on the ground. And not just on farms — in labs and offices, too. Seasonal youth and migrant labor is essential to farm operations across our country. At Corteva alone, we employ 30,000 to 40,000 H2A seasonal workers and high school students to perform critical tasks in seed production necessary to assure our next year’s crop. Worker health and safety is paramount. No question. There is also no question that we need those workers safely in place. Let’s have the guidance and support to make that happen.

Access to capital is, on the one hand, self-explanatory and universal. However, American farmers and ranchers require a specific toolkit to withstand market uncertainties: commodity support, crop insurance, and custom credit programs specifically structured to support the stability and strength of the agricultural economy. Timely price and revenue support programs, with accommodating loan repayment terms (possibly extended to multi-year) will be critical. With the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), where funding is being exhausted, farmers are competing for loan relief among small businesses of all kinds. Stronger management and allocation of those resources to address the very specific and sensitive needs of small farm businesses are crucial to the long-term success of smaller American farms.

Trade market access is simply a fact that must be faced: stabilizing exports for the long term is fundamental to operating a successful food chain. Right now, trade agreement implementation, such as China Phase 1, needs to be expedited and product must keep moving. Achieving and maintaining this stability will drive opportunities to re-claim markets impacted by trade imbalances from the past few years. U.S. farmers need to make planting decisions now — and they need to know these markets will still be viable options for them at harvest.

Last, but far from least: Investment in infrastructure is integral to U.S. agriculture’s long-term competitive advantage. By fortifying the weak links within the food supply chain — like processing, preservation, storage, and marketing facilities — while also investing in broadband and other advanced digital technologies, we can not only positively influence the resiliency of farm communities right now, we can accelerate the overall progress of agriculture that our world was hungry for already. In a word: innovation. That’s where America has led for generations. That’s where America needs the infrastructure investments to lead for generations to come.

Am I optimistic that these steps can be taken and work? Absolutely. One way or another, Corteva will push for them on every viable front and in every appropriate forum. I invite the entire ag industry to join us.

You Matter More than You Know

Finally, while mindful of just how hard this pandemic is landing on some folks, there is another letter I wish I could send, another call I want to make. Somewhere, right now, a farmer is standing alone in their kitchen, surrounded by bills, and worries, and fears. And this is what I would write or say to them on the phone, if I could:

You are not alone. You are not forgotten. You matter more than you will ever know. You are a part of a broader family. We all need you. Please reach out to someone to talk.

And mark my words, friend: brighter, better days will rise from the grounds we cultivate together.

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