Recognizing Our Part in the Ecosystem
Interview with Jim Borel, Recently Retired Executive Vice President, DuPont
How did you develop a passion for agriculture and plant science?
I grew up on a farm in Iowa and have been involved with agriculture my entire life. As a farm kid, I have always been interested in agriculture and went on to study agricultural business. In my career, I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time visiting with farmers all around the world.
Farmers, regardless of where they are in the world, share a desire for a better life for their family. They care for the land and take great pride in what they do. They are anxious to learn and embrace new ideas and approaches. It has been fun to see that, but more important, to make a difference because agriculture is so critical to the fundamental economies of the world and to people’s lives.
How is your work making a difference?
It is important to recognize that we all are part of an ecosystem, and just giving a farmer a great new seed or great new safe crop protection product, does not solve their problem. A farmer in Ethiopia may have access to a new seed that could yield four times as much, but then not have access to the financing to afford to buy it at the beginning of the season, the agronomic advice to use it well or a market to sell to. All of those things have to come together. DuPont has done a lot of partnering and looked for ways to work together with others, formally or informally, to get the education, services, and infrastructure aligned so farmers can succeed.
Is there an example of a partnership that is working?
One great example is in Ethiopia. There are 8 million maize farmers in Ethiopia, and with the open pollinated varieties they’ve been planting for hundreds of years, they get between one-half and three-quarters of a ton per hectare. The yield is not quite enough to feed a family for a year, so they are locked in a cycle of poverty.
Many people are surprised to hear that of the more than 800 million chronically malnourished people in the world, more than half are smallholder farmers and their families. If we are going to solve poverty and hunger issues around the world, we have to help these smallholder farmers get out of that cycle and into commercial success.
The way to do that is to give them the tools — advanced seeds, access to fertilizer, access to the other tools they need, and agronomic training. DuPont can do a lot of that ourselves, but we certainly cannot do all of it, so we partnered with The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia, and local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)The Ethiopian government also has a financing program to help these farmers buy seed and fertilizer. If you can get all of the pieces together it is amazing what can happen. In the first year, the farmers who participated saw yields increase more than 200 percent.
If you look at The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Food Security Index (available here) over the past four years, Ethiopia has moved up 14 places. Not just because of this program, but in large part because the government is embracing these kinds of public-private partnerships. What’s really exciting is that we’re now starting to replicate this program in Zambia, Ghana, and South Africa.
So the challenge for the agriculture industry is to continue creating programs that bring the right elements together, and then scale them and replicate them, and do it all as rapidly as possible. It is good business for the companies, good business for the farmers and great economic development for the countries involved and this work is starting to make a dent in food security in some of the most challenging areas around the world.
You talked about the importance of the right tools. As we approach the 20th anniversary milestone for biotech crops, what does this milestone represent for agriculture?
Biotechnology has already proven to be a huge tool to help farmers be more productive. It is important to recognize that it has had a couple of decades of safe, wide-scale use and a really meaningful impact on both productivity and sustainability. At the same time, biotechnology is just one tool. Farmers need a whole toolbox to optimize their operations. And farmers are trying to optimize a lot of different things: maximizing yields and profits; maintaining the health of soil; and protecting the environment. Having tools available to them that are proven to succeed is really important.
Biotech in particular is in use by a lot of farmers. Most assume it is large-scale U.S. and Brazilian farmers — and these farmers do plant biotech crops. But when you look at the numbers, by far the largest numbers of biotech growers are smallholder farmers, growing crops such as insect-resistant cotton in some of the poorest regions in the world. These tools are not size-dependent and can be used by farmers all around the world, and in all sorts of situations because they help farmers be more productive, and that is what is important.
Where do you see the technology going?
When it comes to biotechnology and agriculture, it is really just the beginning. It is widely adopted and embraced, but at the same time, there are only a handful of functions currently provided: insect resistance, herbicide tolerance that allows better weed control, and some value-added oils, for example.
The work going on in the lab today helps the plant do things it could do on its own, but which would take too long through conventional breeding. Nitrogen-use efficiency, for example, which means corn hybrids that can yield the same or better in nitrogen-limited environments.
Another important development is drought-resistance and drought-tolerance. Increasingly variable weather conditions are occurring around the world. The coming generations of crops will have to do a better job with water management, so it yields the same when water conditions are normal, and in dryer conditions, it significantly out-yields conventional seed.
What if the indigestible portions of oilseeds like soybeans could be converted into higher value digestible meal, protein and oil? We are just scratching the surface of what plants want to do, but have not been able to do until now.
What’s next for agriculture?
As we look ahead over the next 15–20 years, it is going to take science to make a difference in the world’s food supply. The realities are: limited land, limited water, and a changing climate. We are not going to be able to increase food production just by increasing acreage. We need to increase total crop production and we need to do it in a sustainable way. And it is going to take all of us in society, and in particular the agricultural industry, working together to make an optimal use of strong innovation and investment and great collaboration to bring it together in a way that makes a difference in a sustainable way.