Putting Agri-Tech into practice

The Agri-Tech Strategy launched by the Government this summer has focused the attention of the wider agricultural industry on the need to reconnect basic research and applied science so ultimately farmers will have access to the innovation and expertise they need to farm efficiently and sustainably.

Delivering the opening address at CropTec, BASF sustainable development and communications director for Europe North Dr Geoff Mackey highlighted the UK’s strong track record in R&D. Organisations such as Rothamsted Research, the John Innes Centre and the James Hutton Institute are all internationally recognised for their innovative science. But there was a need to ensure the Agri-Tech Strategy ensured funding persisted and grew and was better targeted, he said.

Dr Mackey told CropTec visitors agriculture was BASF’s biggest area of R&D spend, accounting for 25 per cent of the company’s total R&D budget.

He said: “In 2012 this was €430 million. For us it is all about partnership – for example we have worked with leading experts to understand the biology of herbicide and fungicide resistance. In the UK this includes a collaborative project on monitoring herbicide resistance in broad-leaved weed such as poppy, conducted by ADAS and funded by BASF, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont.

“We are working with researchers at Rothamsted to better understand and manage black-grass resistance and arable rotations.

“Our R&D teams test about 140,000 molecules a year which we hone down to about 100 active ingredients for possible field trials.”

Regulation

Dr Mackey called for a shift in approach to registration of crop protection active ingredients in Europe.

He said: “What we want is an environment which is pro-registration and pro-research; an environment which regulates the risk of hazards to reduce harm but does not ban all hazards regardless of risk. Risks such as the unintended environmental consequences of alternative solutions or the economic damage caused by using less effective products.

“To effect this change, we want an innovation principle built into policy making. The reality is agrochemicals are highly regulated, second only to medicines.”

While the current regulations protected human and environmental safety, they were open to abuse, allowing ‘highly illogical, opportunistic, political opposition to block or delay opportunities a such as genetically modified [GM] crops or pesticides which improve human health and resource use’, said Dr Mackey.

He said: “The underlying issue is it is rarely scientific proof which will change these opponents’ minds. They will never accept GM crops are no more likely to cause harm than pet shop foodstuffs or pesticides used in the way they were designed are no more hazardous than any other treatment.”

Dr Mackey said 10 chief executives, together responsible for €21 billion (£18bn) of R&D expenditure across Europe, had written to Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, asking for the innovation principle to be considered in the next European Council. One of those chief executives was from BASF, he added.

CropTec numbers

  • In 1995 there were 35 companies involved in R&D for new active ingredients; in 2012 there were 17
  • In 1995 it cost $152m (£96m) to bring a new active ingredient to market; in 2012 it cost $256m (£161m)
  • In 2000 there were 70 new active ingredients in the development pipeline; by 2012 there were 28

Source: G. Mackey/BASF

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