What’s New From Bayer Crop Science

Short-stature corn, RNAi technology for managing corn rootworm are on the way.

Bayer has taken some hits since it closed on its purchase of Monsanto in June 2018. Its stock price of $30.10 on June 8, 2018, has dipped to last Friday’s (October 4) $17.50 close. So far, Bayer is also 0 for 3 in glyphosate-cancer lawsuits. 

On the other hand, the cultural integration between the two firms is going well, says Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science.

Liam Condon
Liam Condon

“We were cognizant that when two big companies get together, if they fail, it is a cultural thing,” he says. “We mapped out the cultures of the companies so that the new combined company culture is better.

“To me the proof of the pudding was last August, when a big group of investors visited us in St. Louis,” says Condon. “We had a mix of Bayer and Monsanto (employees), and I put the challenge to the investors: I bet you that you will not be able to tell me (afterward) who is from which company. This (meeting) was over two days, so it wasn’t something you could fake. Afterward, the investors said to me, ‘We tried and got it wrong.’”

Bayer’s Products and Strategies

Bayer executives and scientists are also bullish on products and strategies that are part of the firm’s future. Condon and other Bayer officials updated journalists on these at its global Future of Farming Dialogue held earlier in October in Monheim, Germany. 

• Short-stature corn. “This is one of those ideas that is not new,” says Bob Reiter, who heads research and development for Bayer.

Bob Reiter
“It takes a page out of Norman Borlaug’s playbook.”

To fuel the 1960s Green Revolution in countries like India, Borlaug needed to reduce the height of wheat so it wouldn’t lodge when farmers applied nitrogen. He did this via semi-dwarf varieties that did not lodge and still yielded well.

“The same things happen with short-stature corn,” Reiter adds. “It allows for a reduction in lodging, or problems like greensnap where high winds cause the crop to fall over.”

This approach also maintains or even improves yield potential, says Condon. Short-stature corn also enhances  the ability to do field operations, such as applying late-season nitrogen, later into the growing season.

“My belief is this will be a blockbuster,” says Reiter.

Bayer is launching its first short-stature hybrid in Mexico this year. It aims to launch these hybrids early next decade in North America.

• Digital agriculture. Bayer divested of several assets to BASF in order to buy Monsanto including:

- LibertyLink technology, a glufosinate-tolerant-based weed-control system in corn, soybeans, and cotton

- Canola hybrids in North America under the InVigor brand using the LibertyLink trait technology

- Credenz soybeans

- Certain seed treatment products including Ilevo, a seed treatment that helps soybean farmers manage sudden death syndrome

- Xario digital farming platform

Still, Bayer got the digital business that Mark Gulley, a retired Wall Street analyst, said drove the Bayer-Monsanto deal: The Climate Corporation. This digital ag business has approximately 90 million acres enrolled in its flagship FieldView program.

Bayer is also working with 60 external companies to improve farmer decision-making, says Condon. “We basically have the 60 additional opportunities to bring new data layers to the algorithms that are working to help farmers make smarter decisions,” Condon says.

• Outcome based pricing. This year, Bayer piloted an outcome-based based pricing program using its digital agriculture tools. 

Rather than selling seed in a bulk unit or chemical in a jug, the program sells outcomes like a certain yield goal. If farmers do not hit the yield goal, Bayer makes up the difference. If yields exceed the goal, Bayer and the farmer split the difference.

“It has not been possible because no one had predictive capacities,” says Condon. Digital agriculture, such as FieldView’s Seed Advisor tool, changes this. Bayer officials say data science predicts with increasing accuracy how specific hybrids and other inputs will perform on a field. This gives Bayer the confidence to create a yield goal, they say.

“We are convinced the industry will move toward it,” says Condon.

• RNAi technology. Corn rootworm-resistant rootworm hybrids have worked well to manage corn rootworm. However, some kinks are popping up. Corn rootworm now resists all four Bt-based corn rootworm traits. 

However, new technology is on the way to offering another way to manage corn rootworm. “RNA interference (RNAi) is a phenomena that occurs in most organisms as a way of controlling gene regulation,” says Reiter. “What it allows us do is actually turn off an essential gene in a very targeted way. In this case, what we’re doing is we’re having the plant express small RNA molecules, which then are taken up by the corn rootworm. They actually use the RNA machinery within the corn rootworm to turn off an essential gene in the corn rootworm itself. The result of that is that the corn rootworm then dies.    

“It is a highly specific, highly targeted, completely novel mode of action compared to the traditional modes of action that are on the market today, which are based on Bt proteins,” says Reiter. “It’s a very phenomenal product and very complimentary technology to what we have today in the market space.”

This rootworm technology is set to debut early next decade in SmartStax Pro. This trait package will feature the RNAi  technology in addition to the two Bt proteins now present (Cry3Bb1 and Cry34Ab1/Cry35Ab1) in SmartStax.

• Microbes. Bayer and Gingko Bioworks formed a joint venture with Joyn Bio in 2018. This firm is developing microbes that help fix atmospheric nitrogen.  “Ultimately, a crop plant would be able to naturally make its own nitrogen, similar to legumes,” says Reiter. Bayer has a library of 170,000 microbes that it screens for potential crop production benefits. Microbial products on the market so far include Serenade, a biological-based product that’s labeled in several fruits and vegetables for management of several fungal diseases. Last June, Bayer and AlphaBio Control signed a distribution agreement to market Flipper, a biological insect control product developed by AlphaBio, that targets sucking insects like aphids, whiteflies, and thrips. More are in the works.

• Weed control. Last June, Bayer launched a $5.6 billion initiative to find new ways of controlling weeds, including chemical, mechanical, and cultural ones.

Waterhemp at dusk

 “Growers need more options,” Condon says. “They need to be effective, safe, economical, and put in an integrated weed management strategy.”

• Alternative chemical application technology. “Drones in agriculture are still in their infancy,” says Reiter. That may change, though. In China, some farmers apply chemicals on their fields via a drone that arrives in the bed of a pickup truck. There’s a hitch, though. Many Chinese farmers only farm 1 to 2 hectares (approximately 2.5 to 5 acres), says Reiter. However, exploratory work is being done to use drones on larger fields. “There might be swarms of drones or much larger drones than today for uses like that,” says Reiter.

• Targeted protein degraders. Earlier this year, Bayer teamed with Arvinas on a joint venture to develop targeted protein degraders that control pests. Arvinas has developed Proteolysis-Targeting Chimera, also known as PROTAC technology. It harnesses the naturally occurring protein degradation system of the cell to selectively remove target proteins by proteolysis, the breakdown of proteins into amino acids. Bayer officials say because the technology degrades targets rather than inhibiting them, it offers a new category of crop protection applications in agriculture. It also offers an alternative to technologies like some classes of herbicides that have become ineffective due to resistance.

“It unlocks a whole new system of how we can kill a fungus or weed,” says Reiter.

• The Kids are All Right. Bayer doesn’t dodge the issue of climate change. It’s committed to shrinking greenhouse gas emissions by 30% from crop systems in the regions that Bayer markets products. This means even listening to schoolchildren who participate in recent climate change demonstrations, says Condon.

“We firmly believe at Bayer that it’s not up to us to tell youth what is good for them,” Condon says. “We have to work with the youth to co-create the future.” That’s why Bayer is sponsoring a Youth Ag Summit in November in Brazil. “There will be 100 delegates from 45 counties, ages 18 to 25, talking about the future of agriculture,” says Condon. 

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