OpEd: Leading the ag analytics revolution
by Joseph Byrum
Farmers are always looking for seeds that produce higher-yielding crops and require fewer inputs. This helps their bottom line, of course, but it’s much more important than that. Collectively, our future depends on constantly advancing agricultural productivity.
Every day, the global population swells by 200,000. The numbers are truly staggering. Consider that within the next fifteen years, we’ll have to find a way to feed another 1.5 billion people, a number equal to the entire global population at the dawn of the 20th century. By 2050, the global population is estimated to be close to 10 billion. Where will we get the food to feed all of these people?
Back in 1900, farming wasn’t all that sophisticated – it didn’t need to be. Success required putting in long days in the fields with modest equipment. But, within a few decades, much more was needed. By 1940, the population had jumped by 50 percent to 2.3 billion and traditional farming methods were not enough to feed the new population.
Agriculture had to enter the modern age and, thanks to a staggering burst of scientific innovation, production soared. Engineers developed improved tillage, harvesting and grain storage. They designed better tractors and combines and devised superior water management techniques. From chemistry came synthetic fertilizers and crop protection products. From biology came hybridization, the Green Revolution and integrated pest management.
These new farming methods met the needs of the growing population back then by increasing efficiency, but they did not break away from the traditional concept of increasing food output by increasing inputs. Devote more land, water, fertilizer and so on to the task, and production increases. While this works, the solution is no longer optimal when the resources we rely on to produce food today are already stressed.
Once again we’ve reached a point in history where a step change in agricultural innovation is needed to sustainably feed our global population. We must break away from the mechanical past and enter the data-driven future. The next science-based revolution in agriculture is here. It’s analytics.
Analytics replaces the centuries old trial-and-error method of cross breeding plants to find varieties with increased yields. This revolution recognizes that, to increase yields in a sustainable way, we must be smarter. We must do more with less.
Syngenta breeders are on a hunt for seeds with inherently higher yields that can help farmers grow more with less. So the Syngenta soybean breeding team developed a set of advanced mathematical tools that accelerate development of higher-yielding soybean varieties. Through increased genetic gain, the rate at which a breeder makes genetic improvements to yield, the program is improving soybean variety accuracy, selection intensity, genetic variation and generation time.
That means better beans for our customers, and the proof is in the results.
In 2013, Soy Capital Ag Services, an independent organization, tested 20 soybean varieties. Syngenta’s NK soybeans dominated field trials, taking the first, second and third place wins for highest yield. In 2014, Syngenta varieties were again found on the podium.
Before we began using these tools, we realized an average annual increase in yield across our soybean varieties was about 0.8 bushels per acre. That average is now closer to 2.5 bushels per acre.
The pioneering nature of this work was recently recognized by a panel of experts who awarded Syngenta the prestigious Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management Sciences. The award recognizes sophisticated use of advanced mathematics to achieve important goals, and it was the first time the top prize went to a company deeply involved in agriculture.
The award recognized just how vital it is to improve the plant sciences. There are few goals more important than ensuring we can feed a growing global population in a sustainable and environmentally-responsible way.
Syngenta’s approach to advancing sustainable agriculture is outlined in what we call The Good Growth Plan. Through a series of six public commitments, we engage with thousands of customers and stakeholders to make a measurable contribution to making crops more efficient, to rescuing more farmland, to helping biodiversity flourish, to empowering smallholders, to helping people stay safe and to looking after every worker.
It’s important to note that the analytics approach used by our soybean breeders is not genetic engineering. It is the increased sophistication of our ability to improve crops through native genetic diversity. It is an advance that will help farmers increase yield on their own farms with less land, water and other inputs. And the benefits aren’t just limited to soybean.
Syngenta is actively developing the tools needed to apply analytics across our crop platform to help growers meet their bottom line and ensure a better world for future generations.
Joseph Byrum will speak on innovation in the ag sector at the 10th annual Oilseed & Grain Trade Summit in Minneapolis on Sept. 30-Oct. 1. Learn more here.