When asked about the role of chemical crop inputs versus biologicals at the recent Salinas Biologicals Summit in California, Bayer‘s Peter R. Mueller didn’t mince words, saying “it would be detrimental to try and take chemical crop protection out of the toolbox.”
On the one hand, the statement is 0% surprising, Bayer being one of the largest crop protection companies in the world with a massive portfolio of herbicides and fungicides. It naturally wants to keep chemical crop protection in the game.
But Bayer also has biologicals pipeline that includes a number of biopesticides and biostimulants. For more than a decade, the company has developed this part of its business via both acquisitions (e.g., AgraQuest in 2012) and internal innovation.
In a conversation with AgFunderNews (AFN) at the Salinas summit last week, Mueller (PM), who is head of Crop Strategy Fruits & Vegetables at Bayer, also pointed to other reasons that went beyond his company’s ambitions. For the sake of efficacy, food security and a host of other reasons, he believes the future should be chemicals and biologicals, rather than one versus the other.
AFN: Tell us a bit about your background.
PM: I’m a native German and I’ve spent more than 30 years in the industry and the company. I’ve always worked for Bayer: 12 years outside Germany, so many years in Scandinavia then a couple years in France and some years in India and Southeast Asia. I returned [to Germany] four years ago, and since March I am the crop strategy lead for our fruits and vegetables business globally.
AFN: Summarize Bayer’s involvement so far with biologicals.
PM: Biologics already has a tradition within Bayer. Even prior to the AgraQuest acquisition, we had [taken] our first steps in biologicals. We spent almost half a billion dollars on the acquisition of AgraQuest, followed by another acquisition in biologics in Germany. Serenade is still the number one selling biological crop protection product, and it came out of this and is still with us.
Buying Monsanto, one of Bayer’s major strategies was having access across different technologies. So we were really great in chemical property protection and we had made our first steps into biologics. With Monsanto, we got strong seeds and traits, and also digital. We basically doubled the kinds of pillars that our strategy was built upon.
Fast forward to this week, we had a big investors conference where the leadership team of Crop Science presented our innovation strategy. This was where we disclosed that we aim to reach €1.5 billion [$1.6 million] in biologicals sales by 2035.
AFN: What’s the biggest challenge in replacing chemicals with biologicals?
PM: To ask a counter question, why do they have to replace chemicals? I think we should come away a bit from thinking in alternatives — either having just chemicals or just biologicals.
We need a much more “systems-based” approach to the challenges we are facing. It’s about yield. It’s about food security, producing really high-value, high-quality food. We also have to address the big challenges like biodiversity and climate change. Water is a scarce resource, becoming even more problematic. I think we cannot rely on one single technology.
Since the 1970s, we’ve been speaking about integrated pest management systems. But single technologies have developed further since “biotech 1.0.” Now have CRISPR-Cas and gene editing — “biotech 2.0.” We will continue to develop the chemical side, and biologicals need to find their place in this system.
We will not entirely replace chemicals. But the application of chemicals will be completely different. We will see new modes of action coming to the market. We will see lesser and more specific applications of chemicals in the future as well.
So I think we need to see in this kind of systems approach where we combine chemicals, biologicals, seeds and traits. And certainly — as a kind of mortar between the bricks — digitization bringing things together and enabling a lot of products, especially biologicals.
The challenges that we see globally in terms of food security, quality of food, the interior change of the food system given all the challenges around agriculture, as I said before, were climate change, biodiversity, water scarcity and so on. I think we cannot afford to say no to any of these technologies.
So while we want to reduce the application of chemical products in agriculture, we should also create the awareness we cannot fully avoid the use of chemicals. I think also in the future, modern chemical protections will have their place in those systems and we need them.
AFN: Elaborate a bit more on that need.
PM: Current crop protection products do what they’re supposed to: they protect the production of food. Without crop protection today, 40%–50% of yield would basically be destroyed. So we need the effectiveness of chemical products.
Resistance management is also a big topic. We need a broad portfolio of different chemical alternatives in order to figure overcome pest resistance challenges. If it’s too narrow, we basically drive the problem of resistance.
Take the example of the European Union and certain countries within Europe that want to avoid the registration even of new and innovative modern chemicals. This is a problem. All stakeholders — legislators, regulators, growers associations, etc. — need to understand that we should drive change, but that it would be detrimental to try and take chemical crop protection out of the toolbox.
AFN: Now I’m thinking of when Sri Lanka banned synthetic fertilizers in 2021.
PM: Sri Lanka was an absolute extreme, and also emotionally difficult to see what was going on there. [The Rajapaksa government] basically ignored modern science and tried to turn a country to organic farming — and without seeing the consequences of what it meant for the development of their own country. It was like a horror scenario.
Denmark had a similar debate in the late 1980s into the 1990s, wanting to convert Danish agriculture into 100% organic farming. There was a public debate around it and a strong societal wish for it.
But they saw the obstacles and difficulties and went through a learning process. And Denmark today is a synonym for modern, sustainable agriculture. It’s much easier to get modern, chemical crop protection registered in Denmark compared to Germany for instance.
Why? Denmark learned their lesson. They know exactly what is possible and what’s not. And I think the growers associations in Denmark did a wonderful job also in managing the change within the agricultural community and also reaching out to society and explaining why certain things are absolutely important.
AFN: So what can we learn from these two extremes?
PM: These are definitely two extremes: Sri Lanka and Denmark.
As a developing country, Sri Lanka basically drove its own country into severe difficulties, and they still need to prove that they have learned their lesson. Denmark had similarly similar extreme positions but learned their lesson and came back to a much more sustainable way of thinking.
I see many parts of the world having this public debate about what the future of agriculture looks like. I think sometimes it’s a bit noisy, and we have a lot of very controversial opinions, from NGOs on one side to, in certain countries, very conservative positions of state farmers associations.
I just hope we have a reasonable public debate on the topic and come to a conclusion that we all want to build a more sustainable and also regenerative agriculture system.