Neal Gutterson, vice president of Agricultural Biotechnology with DuPont Pioneer, completed a recent interview, which the planners of the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit distributed to promote the March 3-4 event in San Francisco, where many ag industry leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs will speak.
The interview with Gutterson was split into a two-part series because of its length with the first half being on AgProfessional.com (“Technology and data-driven agriculture key for the future”) yesterday and the second half as a separate article today. Here is Part Two of Gutterson’s interview answers.
Where are we seeing most innovation in ag-biotech? What sub-sectors have the potential to take off in the next five years?
Innovation continues in mainstream biotech product categories, with new modes of action in development for insect control for example. But we are seeing a new wave of innovation that relies on technologies with a shorter experimental and development cycle, and no unusual regulatory constraints.
In your opinion what is the biggest challenge facing agriculture technology companies in taking their solutions to market?
Ag technologies positively contribute to food and animal feed production in many ways. Technologies that are deployed as biotech traits usually trigger regulatory oversight. Good regulations should be proportionate to potential risks of a product but often the tendency is to over-regulate and focus on the techniques used in developing the product as opposed to the product itself, which can delay delivery of products or solutions to growers. It can be challenging for regulations to keep pace with advancements and developments in technologies that result in new crop varieties such as gene-editing tools to specifically modify a plant’s own genome, without introducing foreign genetic material.
Such innovations in ag technologies are often developed by small technology companies; however, the investment needed to meet the regulatory requirements make it nearly impossible for small companies to bring crops with biotech traits to the market. For example, it’s estimated to take $136 million and 13 years to get a new biotech product to market. At DuPont Pioneer, we estimate that we conduct more than 75 different studies in the regulatory science phase alone for each new product, even those that are comprised of traits that have been tested and proven safe thousands of times over since their introduction nearly 20 years ago.
For biotech products, the uncertain length of time and cost of the regulatory approval processes in diverse geographies critical to international trade are a significant challenge as well. Ultimately, these Ag technologies contribute to food security and stronger political will support growth of developing countries as well as facilitate reliable grain trade amongst major producer and consumer countries.
How does your company specifically approach the challenge of taking advanced technologies to commercial scale?
It can be tempting for innovators to focus on the most interesting aspect of a technology instead of the aspects that represent the greatest potential risk to success. It is our philosophy to identify early on in the development process the most critical challenges for technology adoption and then focus on solving for those challenges both internally and with stakeholders in the value chain. As an example, the challenge of bringing Plenish High Oleic soybean oil to market has certainly not been about technology or our ability to produce the product at commercial scale, but about securing global regulatory approvals.
In your view, which countries/regions are poised to transform into hubs for agricultural innovation? Where do you see the next wave of new technologies emerging?
Since agricultural innovation draws on more diverse sets of expertise than 20 years ago, innovation hubs must be able to draw more diverse talent than ever before. The United States remains a very strong source of agricultural innovation, but agricultural innovation is increasingly found globally. Clearly China is investing heavily in agriculture and for good reason, trying to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of some crops, and with expertise in everything from software to engineering to biotechnology and genomics, it is poised to compete strongly.
What is the single most important thing that a government can do to stimulate the adoption of advanced agricultural technologies?
For products that use biotechnology in their production, whether resulting in a biotech crop or not, we need inter-governmental regulatory harmonization especially for food/animal feed commodities traded globally. Food/feed safety should be universal based on CODEX and other international scientific instruments, and this should be the basis towards mutual recognition of data acceptance and safety evaluations centered on humans, animals and the environment. This could also drive acceptance of low level presence (LLP) in countries which have yet to approve new products. Zero tolerance and duplication of data generation as well as burdensome review processes involving multiple agencies causes asynchrony thereby delaying adoption. In some cases, fourth hurdles involving non-scientific criteria are being considered in the review process and this can cause further delays in adoption.
Of course there are many other advanced technologies we’ve discussed. In general, the reduction in uncertainty about the regulatory treatment of new products may be the single most critical issue broadly, whether we are discussing new “biologicals,” new breeding technologies, new hybrid systems or new data-sharing products. Other than that, support for an innovation environment is critical to overall success, including appropriate tax or credit incentives for research by small companies, grant support, support for alliances between academic institutions that often initiate innovations with small companies that take the initial risk of developing innovative products.
How do you as a company identify potential partners or collaborators in the agri-tech space?
First and foremost, we are guided by our core values – safety & health, highest ethical behavior, respect for people and, environmental stewardship. A shared set of high standards in these four areas is the most critical factor that guides our selection and relationship with potential collaborators. Our unwavering commitment to our core values also encourages small companies to recognize and seek out DuPont Pioneer. Second, we look to either identify needs of our organization or select entities that are solving significant scientific challenges that could bring value to our customers/growers. Third, we look to identify entities with common goals and expectations in the development of the technology. Fourth, we identify and work with venture funds or other vehicles for sourcing technologies and potential deals. Finally, we look for collaborators with complementary strengths so that the resulting effort will be as strong and robust as possible, both as to the technology approaches and resources available.
You can hear Gutterson further discuss issues at the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit, taking place in San Francisco on March 3-4, 2015. Information is at www.worldagritechusa.com.