By David Frabotta

How Farmer Centricity Drives Sustainable Innovation at Corteva Agriscience

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May 26, 2022

Collaboration with producers helps to create next-generation technologies to meet the challenges of climate change, population growth and food security

The challenges facing the American farmer have seldom been more pressing. The impacts of a changing climate coupled with increasing demands on their land along with its productivity and consumers’ growing interest in how their food is produced adds layers of complexity to farm operations.

The immense productivity of the American farmer has benefitted the world. By harnessing ingenuity and technology, farmers have produced enough food, feed, fiber and fuel to improve the quality of life for billions. There have been seminal moments: mechanization, the Green Revolution, advanced breeding and genetically modified organism (GMO) technology. Now, amid an inflection point with new challenges, producers have another opportunity to employ innovation for the advancement of people and prosperity in this country and others around the world.  

“I think we’re at a really critical time,” says Wendy Srnic, vice president, seeds research and development (R&D) for Corteva Agriscience. “Recent events have highlighted the importance of things we already know. The challenges facing farmers right now–to feed a rapidly growing world in a climate-positive way that preserves their land for generations to come–have never been as acute as they are now.”

Wendy Srnic, vice president, seeds R&D for Corteva Agriscience

Fortunately, farmers aren’t alone in their plight to be more productive and profitable. Agriculture input companies–especially research-based entities–are delivering new products, technologies and innovations to help meet the needs of specific operations to maximize every acre.

Intrinsic Sustainability

Corteva has worked to improve productivity on the farm for almost 100 years. During that time, it has been one of the major drivers of R&D for advanced seed and crop protection products that have driven corn yields from 25 bushels per acre to about 175 bushels per acre today. That journey in production performance means farmers are producing more food on less land and naturally using fewer chemicals, less water and less fertilizer per bushel. The incremental improvement through the years translates into an underlying sustainability journey for American agriculture that Corteva has helped power through continuous innovation.

“Let’s look at the footprint of what yield increases mean. Had we not improved corn yields to their current levels, we would need to plant nearly one out of every four acres of TOTAL land in the continental United States to produce that amount of grain,” Srnic shared. “That’s a magnificent example of how sustainability is inherently aligned with our business.”

In addition to producing more on less land, GMOs and the development of new production systems have mitigated the amount and number of chemistries needed to control pests. Those systems also create the foundation for additional conservation practices, such as no-till farming, which are more feasible when weeds are under systemic control. 

“We’ve been on this journey to implement sustainable innovation for a while, even before the current focus,” Srnic says. “Now we are solidifying the innovational philosophies we want to maintain and raising the bar to see how can we do it better.”

More in the Pipeline

Seed development and green chemistries are part of the journey that Corteva has prioritized in its sustainable innovation efforts. On the chemistry side, the company has nine products that carry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Reduced Risk label and it has earned six Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards. Its biological portfolio is growing too, as integrated pest management strategies become more widely adopted in diverse growing environments.

In the seed business, the iterations of its blockbuster products continue to improve yields, input efficiencies, disease and pest resistance, environmental adaptation and plant health. Environmental change is playing a part in creating more resiliency traits as weather extremes challenge traditional growing geographies and production agriculture spreads to new geographies.

Srnic shares some examples of the latest technologies including:

  • Qrome® corn products for rootworm control: “What we’ve seen is a really nice yield bump from products with that trait because healthier plants that have tolerance against rootworm equals healthier roots and healthier plants that can survive drought and other stress.”
  • Enlist™ weed control system for soybeans, cotton and corn: Stacked herbicide tolerance provides “a great option for weed control and battles some very difficult weeds that have developed a resistance to glyphosate and other chemicals that we’ve been using in our crops for many years.”
  • Optimum® AQUAmax® hybrids to improve drought performance: “With our AQUAmax pipeline for drought and water use, we screen our new genetics in robust drought environments to see which ones rise to the top and direct them to the markets where they have a unique fit. We have strong pipelines that we continually innovate to bring improvement to our customers.”

While Corteva’s biotech and hybrid pipelines remain strong, its gene editing technologies might be one of the most exciting and impactful innovations.  These technologies provide the ability to accelerate genetics and trait improvements, and the time in which they can be brought to market. 

A scientist grinds plant tissue as part of the research process.

“Gene editing is a sweet spot helping us move more quickly than breeding, and with less complexity than developing a biotech trait. For example, we can bring multiple disease resistance genes together providing a more durable disease defense,” Srnic says. “We’re solving challenges in a more accelerated way through gene editing. We’re leaning into gene editing, tackling problems that typically would require very long and complicated breeding processes, so we can deliver better solutions to our customers.”

Much of that breeding innovation will hit the market in the next 10-15 years as regulatory frameworks on gene editing continue to develop around the world. The USDA has indicated that it views the technology favorably, and gene-edited crops are entering the US market. Europe is currently developing regulatory guidelines that would distinguish the regulation of gene-edited crops from that of GMO crops. For commodities such as corn and soybeans, a transparent global regulatory framework must be established to ensure American farmers will have access to innovations and markets for their crops.

While gene-edited traits and characteristics are a few years away, science-based R&D companies such as Corteva are developing a healthy pipeline of ideas and potential products that could usher in a new era of seed performance, mitigating a host of biotic and abiotic stressors.

Farmers As Collaborators

Of course, every bit of this innovation is dependent on engaging farmers to identify challenges and help test solutions. R&D has a long tail, so it remains crucial to begin the process early with feedback from farmers to keep priorities aligned with the on- farm challenges they face.

A Corteva technician gathers data in a field test for corn pests.

“Our field teams conduct their research in our farmer’s fields, and we rely on their feedback to identify the problems we work to solve,” Srnic says. “The research process is long and those targets change over time. Conversations with our customers help guide where we innovate and evaluate the value we can create with those solutions.”

Customer farms are also essential for testing during the development process. Test plots and university trials are important to the process but finding unique locations that can put a technology through practical rigors ultimately yields the most viable and beneficial products for specific growing environments.

“As we get close to commercialization, widespread trials are conducted right there on farmers’ fields. We have trials spread across many farms and environments spanning our target markets so farmers have the ability to get in the fields with their sales representatives, and look at the technology. We want them to see how the technology works and tell us what they think,” Srnic explains. “For our seed and the crop protection business, we work with farmers to test these products while we want to get products into the farmers’ hands when they are being developed. We want to help them understand the potential of that technology, how it’s designed, and make sure it’s going to be successful when it reaches commercialization.”

Deep farmer focus and collaboration is what will ultimately enable Corteva to create the most viable technologies to help farmers meet the challenges they’ll face in the next 10 years and beyond. As the challenges mount, farmers have an opportunity to meet burgeoning demand with sustainable solutions that are driven by their influence on the next generation of inputs and technologies.

“The only way to resolve the trifecta of population growth, climate change and sustainability is through innovation and technology,” Srnic concludes. “We also need safe, predictive and science-based regulation so we can get impactful tools and technologies into farmers’ hands faster because the clock is ticking. We’ve got a great opportunity to deliver the solutions farmers need to address these problems but we need sustainable innovation as a core tool to accomplish this goal.”

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