An interview with Leticia Gonçalves, CEO of Monsanto Europe
You’re speaking on the opening keynote panel debate “Mapping the New Landscape for Global Agribusiness” at the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit in London. Given the magnitude of the consolidations that are taking place, is it possible to make any predictions at this stage on the impact it will have on technology venturing, innovation and R&D within the agribusiness giants over the coming years?
Well, first it’s clear that we can’t afford to invest less. With a growing global population and societal and regulatory demands, seed and food companies need to keep investing just to keep up with the changes in our world. Monsanto invests more than 10% of our sales in R&D—last year that was about $6 million a day.
At the same time, we are expanding the range of our core technology platforms. In the past we invested heavily in genetically modified seeds, and they continue to be very important to thousands of farmers globally, but we’re now also investing more in smart non-GM breeding methods, microbial products and digital tools such as those of the Climate Corporation that are relevant everywhere in the world. We are also seeing more investments in terms of how we bring products and services together by connecting ag inputs into integrated solutions to farmers.
Within the agri-tech sector, what do you see as the most exciting business opportunity over the next 3-5 years? Where do you think major growth will be found?
We have talked a lot about the potential of digital technology to transform the way farmers do their jobs. Every farmer needs to make about 40 decisions a year for every field and crop. Usually they’ve made those decisions on the basis of experience or gut instincts, but with new tools we can help farmers exploit the opportunity presented by the wealth of data that is becoming available. Using historical data on soil health and yields as well as historical and real-time weather data, we can help farmers make smart decisions, whether the seeds they grow are ours or someone else’s. We are already selling our Field View services in the U.S. and have begun to test them in Europe.
Which specific sectors of agricultural technology will show fastest growth and why?
I’d cite three areas. First, there’s digital technology combined with big data, which I already mentioned. Second, there are some exciting new breeding techniques including gene-editing methods that allow people to make changes to DNA faster and more accurately than has ever been possible before without introducing foreign DNA. This is still early stage technology but it has the potential to revolutionise plant breeding with all the potential benefits for society that this brings. Third, there’s microbial technology, putting nature to work in helping to improve crop performance.
In comparison to your experience within the U.S., what do you feel is the biggest challenge facing agricultural technology companies in achieving market penetration within Europe? How does this compare with the U.S?
The biggest difference is in the application of the precautionary principle in Europe. In the US there is extensive regulation in place to ensure safety, but there is also an emphasis on getting innovation into the hands of farmers. We see the benefits of this in farmers’ ability to deliver improving yields despite the challenges of climate that we have seen in recent years. In Europe the relative lack of tools available is reflected in slower growth in yields and limited options for farmers to solve their everyday problems.
How are you/your company addressing these challenges? Tell me a bit more about your approach?
In Europe we have a very strong business, with world class plant breeders and experts in crop protection, and we are focused in innovating in those areas where we can deploy the innovations we develop.
In the meantime, we are of course appealing to the voices of reason in Europe which we know are there and care passionately about the importance of innovation and the availability of a wide range of tools to support the European farm sector in delivering a truly sustainable future.
We’re also making the case for innovation in agriculture and for the protection of the intellectual property that underpins it. IP is society’s toolkit for encouraging innovation – it seems strange that in a sector that demands new approaches that agriculture would be seen as not appropriate for IP protection.
Are there any other sectors within agriculture where you would like to see more innovation? In your opinion what’s ripe for disruption?
We believe that there’s a great potential to create new, improved crop protection products to fight growing weed and insect resistance, particularly as those pressures adapt to a changing climate. We need to keep ahead of them. But the problem isn’t really with innovation, it’s with public acceptance of innovation in agriculture. That’s what we really need to work on. We need more people to understand that we can’t nourish a growing population using the same farming methods that we did when we had a few billion fewer people on earth and we weren’t facing the volatile and changing climate we face now. Two developments that could help are innovation in precision agriculture and the use of big data to help farmers make smarter decisions. These advances take the same sorts of technologies that already drive smart decision making in other walks of life and apply them to agriculture. Farmers who are already using these tools can see immediate benefits without any backlash.
In your view, which countries/regions have the potential to become hubs for agricultural innovation? Where do you see the next wave of new technologies emerging?
I would love to say that Europe could be a leader. It has been a leader in plant breeding and crop protection. It could be again. Right now, though, we see other regions including Asia and North and South America much more open to innovation in agriculture and the results are showing themselves in agricultural productivity and environmental benefits. Many farmers in North and South America now practice no-till farming, for example, which has significant benefits for soil health, but it’s still a relative rarity in Europe.
There is huge investor interest in ag-tech start-ups. If you had to name a company as “one to watch” over the next 12 months, who would it be?
I can’t tell you what will happen, but I can tell you what is happening. We have a team called Monsanto Growth Ventures that aims to help young companies grow through capital and leveraging Monsanto’s agriculture know-how and resources. One of the companies we invested in this year is a Spanish spin-off of the Technical University of Madrid. Plant Response Biotech has developed a broad portfolio of biological-based products to help farmers’ crops handle environmental stresses such as drought, plus biotic stress related to fungal and bacterial diseases.
We’ve also signed agreements with a number of groups regarding the CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology in agriculture and we’re very excited to see where that leads.
What are your plans for growing your business over the next 12 months, and why is the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit important to this strategy?
We have ambitious plans to grow in a number of new markets in Europe, including high oleic, low-linolenic (HOLL) oilseed rape, silage maize, microbial products and digital tools coming from big data and analytics (Climate Corporation). We are expanding maize production in France and Ukraine and building a base for expansion in Russia.
Above all, we think the summit provides a great opportunity for our industry to highlight the technologies available to help farmers conserve valuable resources and contribute to a healthier environment while continuing to help nourish a growing population. Agriculture is sometimes portrayed as a threat to nature but I think we can demonstrate that they are already compatible and that new technologies and innovation can help us make agriculture and environmental protection even more compatible. We also want to help grow public understanding of how farming is developing to the benefit of society, the environment as well as farmers themselves.
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