Interview: At BASF, our target is not only to produce more, but also to produce better

13:03 PM | December 10, 2020 | Sanjiv Rana

BASF Agricultural Solution’s senior vice-president for regulatory, sustainability and public affairs, Dirk Voeste, talks with Sanjiv Rana, editor-in-chief at IHS Markit's Crop Science News Reporting (formerly Agrow), to discuss the company’s outlook on sustainable solutions, digital agriculture and stewardship.

BASF recently set itself “clear and measurable” targets to boost sustainable agriculture by 2030. That includes its Agricultural Solutions division increasing its sales share of “Accelerator” products – those with a “substantial sustainability contribution” – by 7% annually. The targets also include BASF bringing digital technologies to more than 400 million ha of farmland and helping farmers achieve a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions per tonne of crop produced.

Sanjiv Rana (SR): What is your vision for sustainable crop production and protection? 

Dirk Voeste (DV): I believe that agriculture will see one of the most accelerated transformations over the next ten years. Let me take the example of two recent Nobel Prizes to highlight my point. One is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year, which recognised the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology. It symbolises the need for innovation to cope with all the challenges facing modern agriculture. The Nobel Prize in Peace to the UN’s World Food Programme reaffirms the need for affordable and sustainable food supply to the world’s population.

The challenges faced by agriculture are likely to increase manifold because of climate change. This prompts us to save resources and use them gently, while embedding available technologies to deliver on societal expectations. Farmers also have to cope with several uncertainties such as unpredictable weather events, and, in recent past, the trade war between the US and China. The core of our activities is to ascertain how best to mitigate the impacts. The target for us is not only to produce more, but also to produce better, while ensuring a smaller footprint from our activities. 
The “better yield” concept can mean different things. In terms of the Green Deal in Europe, this will be about optimised use of resources and ensuring better biodiversity through targeted application of crop protection products and enhanced digitalisation of farm activities. In the African and Asian context, this will most likely be about the accelerated production of carbohydrates. 

Taking these into account, sustainability for us means finding the right balance between value creation and meeting societal expectations. We focus on two aspects: ensuring our activities protect the environment and scarce resources while enabling farmers to economically.

SR: Do you think the Nobel Prize will impact the stance of the EU in terms of new breeding techniques (NBTs) and result in more social acceptance?

DV: NBTs are widely recognised and the public debate on the topic is now marked by more openness for technologies such as genome editing. But I think the Nobel Prize will not have a significant impact in terms of the European society’s acceptance of NBTs. However, other factors, such as the drought in northern Europe and France last year, along with severe weather anomalies in the UK, may influence the decision on adoption of NBTs. 

SR: Have there been any moves towards a collaborative approach between research-based companies? Has there been any instance where companies have joined hands for a purpose and made any pledges?

DV: With the scale of transformation and the magnitude of the task in front of us, we must admit that it cannot be done alone. So, it is not only collaboration among crop protection companies, but also collaboration across the value chain and among stakeholders. What we are seeing is a more open debate from all perspectives in terms of the understanding of agriculture, particularly in the context of Europe. You often see organic farming being pitted against conventional agriculture. But it is not about choosing one against the other. It is about determining what is right for producing a better yield under a particular set of conditions.

What we are seeing in terms of industry associations is that companies are more collaborative and are acting together to achieve common targets. This approach is likely to develop further in the future, where we not only see collaboration among crop protection companies, but across the value chain.

[The next few questions are about BASF’s concept of “Sustainable Solution Steering”, which it uses to drive itself towards developing increasingly sustainable products. The concept involves trying to achieve a balance between three dimensions of sustainability: economy (potential cost savings); environment (ensuring standards are met); and society (enhancing safety in production and use, as well as stakeholder perception of solutions).

Each product is assigned to one of four categories: Accelerator (substantial sustainability contribution); Performer (meet basic sustainability standards in the market), Transitioner (has specific sustainability issues that are being addressed) or Challenged (significant sustainability concern identified and action plan being developed or implemented). Across BASF’s entire portfolio, 28.9% of products are Accelerators, 61.9% are Performers, 9.1% are Transitioners, and 0.1% are Challenged.

BASF has set itself a target of increasing the sales of Accelerator solutions from €15 billion ($17.9 billion) in 2019 to €22 billion ($26.2 billion) by 2025.]

SR: Could you explain the thinking behind “Sustainable Solution Steering”?

DV: Sustainable steering is a methodology by which we systematically analyse our entire portfolio. We initially assess each product on parameters such as toxicology and profitability. Once a product passes those initial checkpoints, we ascertain the sustainability contribution of the product, posing questions such as: “is it renewable”; “does it save water”; or “does it reduce CO2 emissions”. Based on the benefits, a product is either a “Performer”, which means that it meets the market standards (such as CO2 reduction) for sustainability. Or, it has the “Accelerator” status, which means that it has a substantial contribution to sustainability. For instance, in such products, the potential to reduce CO2 emissions exceeds market standards.  

SR: Could you give any examples of Accelerator active ingredients or chemical families?

DV: Our fungicide, Revysol [trade-marked name of mefentrifluconazole], has been tested stringently for adherence to sustainability concepts. It has a favourable environmental profile and still delivers at least 4% higher yield on average for winter wheat. Revysol is longer lasting, so you may need less fungicide spraying, which could mean less CO2 from lesser tractor drives for spraying. Or it could mean more targeted applications, which could feed into the EU’s Farm to Fork targets.

SR: You had a figure of €22 billion ($26.2 billion) for the entire company by 2025. Are there any specific targets for accelerator solutions for the Agricultural Solutions division?

DV: We have a commitment to grow the sales share of Accelerator products by 7% each year. But we do not have a specific monetary target for Agricultural Solutions as yet.

SR: The herbicide, Kixor (trade-marked name of saflufenacil), with its use emphasis on no-till agriculture, seems to be aimed at the market that is currently occupied by glyphosate. Do you view that as a herbicide that might eventually replace glyphosate?

DV: It will not replace glyphosate. As far as I know, there are no molecules on the market, or even close to being on the market, that can replace glyphosate. But when you talk about the herbicides Kixor, Tirexor (trade-marked name of trifludimoxazin) and others, they will complement glyphosate application through resistance management. It ensures that farming remains profitable while meeting sustainability criteria, rather than replacing glyphosate.

SR: Talking specifically about digital technology, BASF aims to bring the technology to 400 million ha of farmland by 2030. Could you explain the situation now, and what is your strategy to expand it to so many farmers?

DV: We are going to look at the concept of digitalisation in the context of sustainability. While one aspect is to produce more, digitalisation will result in better production through making farming profitable for farmers while reducing its environmental footprint. Partnerships will play a key role in the spread of digital agriculture technologies. For instance, we are in a strategic partnership with Bosch for bringing together digital as well as application technology. The strategic partnerships are important for product innovations and market introduction of solutions such as Smart Sprayer, Healthy Fields and Field Manager. They are in a growing stage. At present, we have 4 million ha where Xarvio Field Manager is being used.

SR: I read on your website about BASF using drones in Colombia and China. Could you tell us a bit about that?

DV: The drones are used for aerial and targeted spraying. We also want to use them as part of our stewardship attempts. We are undertaking significant investments to ensure that our formulations can be applied using drones. It is also a matter of partnership and we have to bring together elements of crop protection, digitalisation, technology and seeds. If you refer to Xarvio, it is something where we see digital agriculture moving towards better prediction models. This will enable us to monitor vulnerable areas, make better forecasts, enable us to use crop protection products more wisely and in a targeted manner. All these would be facilitated by digital agriculture and BASF will be a major partner and player in the future.

SR: Could you give us a background about Easyconnect? How was it developed and when is it going to be rolled out?

DV: Easyconnect is something I have been involved with for a long time. I remember the first prototypes ten years ago, and we developed Easyconnect with the intention of making our crop protection products safer and easier to use. Easyconnect is about physical connection between the spray tank and the container. There is a precise dosage and easy and efficient filling, resulting in no spillage.
We realised that to get traction in the industry, we needed to align with other partners. In the last few years, this technology has been developed with Adama, Syngenta, Corteva, Nufarm, and recently Certis Europe has joined us. So, those companies have revised the Easyconnect technology to fit into broader container packaging in the market. 

This year, we did the last prototypes and we will launch it next year in Europe. This is our target market and we think we will start with Denmark and then go to Germany, the UK and France. This is visualised as a European system, not applied worldwide. But in Europe, this will be the leading system in terms of container management of up to 20 litres. It will be very efficient, fast and safe in emptying the bottles into the spray tanks. Again, if we did not have the partnerships with the technology providers and other industry players, it would have been difficult to introduce such technologies.