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Dr. Steven Borst: Advancements in agronomy

March 16, 2018

Below is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Dr. Steven Borst, general manager of Alltech Crop Science. Click below to hear the full interview:

 

 

Tom:                            There are many interesting innovations, trends and developments happening in the world of crop science. And joining us for an update is Dr. Steven Borst, general manager of Alltech Crop Science. Thanks for joining us, Steven.

 

Steven:                        Thank you very much for having me.

 

Tom:                            Let’s begin with something everybody likes to talk about: the weather. Weather-wise, 2017 was devastating for a lot of the world. Are we going to continue to see a lingering impact on crop producers in 2018?

 

Steven:                        If we look at it from a global perspective, I would say we’d have to pick out a couple areas, or a couple climates, particularly. Yes, we saw major shifts and some major extremes with regard to tropical storms, tropical depressions and places experiencing drought. I believe I saw in the news the other day that  Cape Town, South Africa is going to run out of water — it’s the first major city to run out of water — this upcoming March. So, seeing those majorly impacted areas, absolutely that will resonate into other cropping systems.

 

                                    I think there's also a positive outlook, too, with regard to what we've seen in other areas. For example, particularly here in Kentucky, we had a very good cropping weather cycle pattern. We've seen some very good harvest yields with regard to specific crops in specific areas. In those impacted areas, particularly if we're talking about California, or if we’re talking about Florida, yes, there will be some carryover.

 

                                    Picking Florida just in general, we're going to see the impact from the hurricane (Irma) there. We’re going to see its impact, and we're going to see it, quite possibly, all the way through the supply chain with regard to orange juice and what that cost is going be to the consumer because of the impact that that hurricane had on citrus yields. So, I'd say, Tom, from our perspective, depending upon where specifically we would be looking, we’d be treating those impacted areas a little bit differently. But, nobody is more prepared than a farmer for what's going to occur. They're going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

                                    I would say for 2018, that's exactly how we have to handle it. You have to handle each year that way. So, carryover effects versus what we produced last year, but the hope for this year is that it's going to be the year that we have a perfect weather pattern. It’s tough to predict the weather, as we all know, but there is going to be carryover in particular regions and areas that we've worked in, but we’re very hopeful for 2018. Very hopeful.

 

Tom:                            Let's go back and focus on Florida for a moment. I think we're referring to Hurricane Irma.

 

Steven:                        Yes. Hurricane Irma.

 

Tom:                            It rolled right up the peninsula, and it hit at a time when Florida citrus was already undergoing a disaster: “greening,” I think it's called. And you're engaged in some way with mitigating that issue. Can you talk about that a bit?

 

Steven:                        Sure. We’ll explain it in two parts: Citrus greening is caused by the Asian citrus psyllid. Liberibacter is the bacteria that is injected through the vector of the psyllid — the psyllid itself is a vector — and it has been impacting Florida citrus since it was first identified in 2004 or 2005. That disease has yet to have a specific cure identified for it.  I wait to see it on the nightly news quite often, but it's just kind of one of those issues you don’t hear about often, but that we probably should, since a lot of us eat and drink citrus or orange juice.

 

                                    From an Alltech perspective, we are focused on the growers down there. One of the longest-standing areas that we have worked in from a crop science perspective has been the state of Florida. We have been providing them with our solutions to increase their yields, increase productivity and increase quality. We’ve been witness to what those declines have been, particularly with regard to the yields that we see there. One of our Florida salesmen happens to be a citrus grower himself. So, it hits home — particularly when we see our longstanding customers impacted.

 

                                    With regard to the greening problem, we're continuing as a collective group, whether it’s a government agency or private companies such as ours, to try to come up with a solution for these farmers and for these citrus growers. To date, we don't have the “silver bullet” to combat this disease.

 

                                    The Liberibacter bacteria is currently unculturable. So, therefore, we can't work on areas to try to essentially get rid of it or mitigate it. Mitigation through proper nutrition and technology, such as what we're offering, is one of the areas that we're focused on. That ties into some of our research — the nutrigenomic research — that we conduct at Alltech. We’re looking at applying our technologies and solutions to the crop and seeing how that impacts the plant metabolically. We have seen some very favorable results by looking at it as a way to help the plant defend itself.

 

                                    So, that's been an area that's been a big focus for us from a research perspective. I was down in Florida last week with one of our close customers at their grower meetings and going through our research, sharing exactly what we're trying to do in trying to come up with a solution there. So, Tom, it’s a big area of focus for us, and that stems from (Alltech founder and president) Dr. Lyons essentially challenging us to come up with a solution. Regardless of what that challenge is, he's always trying to come up with a solution or a “recipe” for us to provide to our customers. So, it’s been a challenge. Our efforts are still ongoing. We’ve seen some very positive results with our technologies.

 

                                    Back to your question on Irma: What has happened is that we have a serious disease, and that has really impacted the citrus industry. I had heard last week that, actually, prior to Irma, citrus production was actually going to be above what it was the previous year. That would have been the first time since the identification of citrus greening. Then they were impacted by a hurricane —  Hurricane Irma — and they've lost product, in some areas, more than 50–75 percent of their crops.

 

                                    So, that's one of those areas where we were talking about seeing a residual impact. It's going to be detrimental. There’s a lot of work going into it from the government aspect, too, on proposals being offered and put together to combat things from a financial loss perspective. So, that’s an area that we're really monitoring. We’re really hoping that 2018 is the turnaround for us and that we can come up with something even more effective so that our producers can get through this tough time.

 

Tom:                            Even taking into account the challenges that the weather brought on last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that farmers have harvested record crops, including soybeans, peanuts, canola, rapeseed and hops. As a global leader in crop technologies, what other causes for optimism are you seeing in the U.S. and around the world, for that matter?

 

Steven:                        Absolutely. I would say it's, again, those extremes in specific areas that will impact us. Overall, though, it was a very good year with regard to cropping systems. From our standpoint, from a technology standpoint, it's very exciting for us to see that, because a lot of the technologies and a lot of the groups that we work with and the advancement in technology — and that's not just to say technologies from crop inputs, but whether it’s computer systems or digital mapping — those advancements are really providing the farmer the opportunity to make very calculated decisions.

 

                                    Farmers are probably the world's greatest scientists, and they're always continuing to identify areas for improvement — if they can get one more bushel, get one more orange, increase production just one-tenth or one one-hundredth of a percent over the previous year’s production. So, technologies, and advancements in technologies, have really permitted those farmers to “play around” a lot more and to come up with solutions specifically tailored to individual challenges. 

 

                                    If we go back to citrus greening,  “Okay, how can I, even with this disease, increase the opportunity for us to increase quality or yield?” So, they're continuing to pick and play with programs, with technology, and to work with different companies and organizations in order to do that.

 

                                    It’s exciting because, when you see that openness to try new things, it permits us the opportunity to provide new things. And if we can provide new tools, and the farmer has more willingness to try those new technologies or be open to those new tools, we’re better able to assist them with those challenges.

 

                                    The larger and greater the crop from the previous year, the better. There's no complacency with regard to farming. It's always “How do I increase? How do I get better? Just because we have a record year this year doesn't mean that we're not going to try even harder next year.” It’s very exciting for us.

 

Tom:                            Many parts of the world are enjoying an era of economic growth at the moment. Would you say the biological crop industry is benefiting?

 

Steven:                        Yes. There is a benefit to the biological arena. I attended the first World Biostimulant Congress in Paris, France, when I first joined Alltech. It must have been almost six years ago. We just had the third congress this past year here in the United States. They’ve seen, quite possibly, one-, two-, three-, fourfold attendance and companies and other groups engaged in this arena. There is no question, from an agriculture perspective, that this new market is the forefront of where we're going to be in the future. Providing a technology to help stimulate the plant to do what it needs to do means looking at it from a more holistic perspective, which is now an area that's really on the radar with regard to a lot of the major companies.

 

                                    The big four major chemical companies that dominate the agriculture industry are also engaged in this shift, engaged in acquisitions and advancement in those technologies. It’s exciting to see the arena blossom, so to speak, and see other companies engage in that, obviously from a competitive standpoint. It causes all of us to be more competitive, to advance our technology, advance our growth and what we're trying to do for the farmer. I would say that competition breeds more success. I’m excited about that. It doesn't hurt, from an economic standpoint, that farmers have a greater willingness to try out and to experiment with those new things and new technologies.

 

Tom:                            Let's talk about biostimulants for a moment. For those who are not aware of what they are, if you could explain what they are, and also how they are used in crop development efficiency.

 

Steven:                        It’s a term that's been batted around a little bit, and it’s being batted around, I'd say, by regulatory bodies. The easiest answer is that it’s a technology that stimulates a biological process – hence, “biostimulant.” It can be misconstrued to some extent because a lot of synthetic chemicals, for example, a glyphosate herbicide, are developed to stimulate a response. That response just happens to be desiccation or death — growth regulators designed to simulate a response. I think the main difference would be that it's taking technologies, hormones, plant metabolites and other naturally occurring functions and then using those to stimulate a response that the plant might already be doing naturally.

                                   

                                    If I could use a specific example, when we incorporate a technology like one of our biostimulants and we apply that technology to stimulate that plant to defend itself against an impending attack, what we're doing is essentially priming that plant to be prepared for an attack so that it can then mitigate it.

 

                                    I think an easy analogy would be taking a vitamin C tablet to try to keep yourself from getting sick. We take that a little bit further with the research capabilities that we have at Alltech and evaluate the process from a metabolic perspective. We look and see “Okay, when you apply X, this is what happens.” By having those technologies — and we've developed those technologies from a longstanding commitment to research and innovation from a fermentation perspective, and even from a disease perspective. We apply that same technology to prime that plant or identify specifically what that hormone is and apply it.

 

                                    So, if I can come back to your original question: What is a biostimulant? It is a technology that’s more naturally derived and used to stimulate a plant response. It’s more of a holistic approach to that side of the crop business.

 

Tom:                            Are there any particular regions of the world where this is catching on more than others?

 

Steven:                        Yes. Latin America is a big area that's really caught on. With the regulatory frameworks and government bodies, a lot of countries — Spain, for example — have biostimulant regulations tailored around specifically what you're trying to achieve. So, regulatory frameworks can be a hindrance in some aspect, but they can be a guidance in others. We’ve been a little bit behind on that in some of the other countries — and I’ll throw the U.S. in that category, for specific purposes — but we're developing and working within those frameworks right now to make sure those guidelines are managed.

 

                                    If we have an established regulation, it's easy for us to adhere to and make sure that we're providing a technology that should be provided to the customer. Obviously, regulations are there to protect the consumer from companies that maybe don't have quite the ability to take advantage of that. So, it’s an area that, particularly in Latin America — Europe recently is going to have new regulations that are coming here in this upcoming year — permits them to take on that industry and allow us to then tailor our technology specifically to that regulation. I would say, to really indicate the early adopters, it would probably be Brazil. That's one of our most successful markets — Latin America and some of the European-specific countries.

 

Tom:                            Some of the experts we hear from are now predicting that the global biopesticide market is going to double within the next five years. What are biopesticides, and what's driving that growth?

 

Steven:                        A biopesticide is of a natural origin, a biological origin. It could be a bacterium. It could be a fungus. It could also be a material that is harvested from one of those specific examples. It is targeted specifically to the pest. That arena has really blossomed, and it is a part of the biological biostimulant arena. It has blossomed as a result of the competition that I was speaking about earlier. It also comes from the demand of the consumer to mitigate pesticide use, synthetic pesticide use, to mitigate what's going onto that crop, what's going into that system. A big driver of that is the consumer, but it also stems from a lot of the major players in the agricultural chemical industry getting involved and specifically making acquisitions or adhering to that call from the consumer and driving the business forward.

 

                                    At Alltech, we're really excited about that, and we have technologies we’re working on right now specifically for biofungicide applications. It's a longer framework with regard to the regulation, but it's an area that's a definite focus, particularly for the future of agriculture. It’s an area where we're going to continue to increase and continue to blossom with regard to the economic impact. The consumer, especially with social media and with the technology that we have today and everything at our fingertips, wants to know exactly what's going into that lettuce or that strawberry.

 

                                    So, it's just going to continue to grow from that aspect.

 

Tom:                            There was some press last year about the Cavendish banana being in trouble, and I know that Alltech has a project underway in Costa Rica. I'm not sure if that involves the Cavendish. Does it?

 

Steven:                        The Cavendish banana is a monoculture, and the concern there is Panama disease. From the standpoint of the Cavendish bananas, we're a part of research and innovation in the banana in Costa Rica — the banana production area down there. The challenge is that they're experiencing, similar to the citrus industry, a disease that's impacting them for which there isn’t an answer right now.       

 

                                    We’re continuing to work on a similar disease that impacts production: black sigatoka in Costa Rica. This is another project geared toward developing solutions, which was initiated by Dr. Lyons specifically, and from our customers, to help combat some of these challenges.

 

                                    We do work in the Philippines as well. It’s an area we’re trying to expand in and where they're seeing this disease that you're referencing there from the Cavendish side.

 

                                    So, we're continuing to look at ways that we can mitigate and, if possible, come up with the “silver bullet” through the research programs that we have going on there.

 

                                    Specifically, in Costa Rica, the banana production and the work we're doing down there has been a big focus for the Alltech Crop Science research program. It’s been an area where we're really trying to help producers to not only combat a disease, but mitigate their chemical use within a banana production portfolio.

 

Tom:                            What other developments and trends in crop science and farming appear to be especially promising right now?

 

Steven:                        I would say the digital aspect. We couldn't not identify the digital aspect: precision farming; the ability for tractors to specifically pinpoint how much individual plants need of a nutrient application; disease identification platforms; we were looking recently at being able to identify a disease before it's even present. I would say the digital area and digital computer technology side is an area that has really continually compounded over the years.       

 

                                    Precision farming, in general, the technology where we're identifying X amount of nutrients for X amount of plant is — to be honest with you — mindboggling to me. If you can go to a cornfield and individually treat a corn plant because of its own soil microclimate within and around its roots, that's the way that you're going to continue to grow yields and production. So that’s one particular area to keep an eye on.

 

                                    I would say on the regulation side, too, you're going to see a lot of different types of regulations. I think you're going to see a lot of different chemistries that we’re very comfortable with and have proven to be effective be eliminated as a result of regulations. We, as a company, have to make sure that we’re ahead of that and are able to come up with new solutions for when the farmer is going to need a replacement for a lot of those chemicals.

 

                                    So, I would say new chemistries, new technologies from that arena and technology in general, from a computer aspect, and precision agriculture.

                                   

                                    Water, that's another area that we need to be looking out for. As I referenced in the beginning, a major city is going to run out of water. Water-use efficiency: How do we use water more effectively, and can we provide technologies that can better enable that water-use efficiency? That’s an area that's going to be a very important area specifically for us to focus on and an area that we need to be continuing to watch. If we run out of water — I can’t imagine. It was not imaginable to me until I saw a news clip and I was blown away by it. But if you don't have water-use efficiency, then we lose a lot of the ability for the farmer to do what he needs to do.

 

                                    So, that's probably an area to really focus on.

 

Tom:                            One technology that you mentioned early in your response that really caught my ear is the ability, through digital technology, I assume, to anticipate disease. What is that?

 

Steven:                        The ability to identify a pathogen before it becomes a nuisance to the crop. A lot of diseases that we experience in cropping systems are already there. When they become a pathogen depends upon its growth cycle. So, being able to identify if I have a presence of a Rhizoctonia, for example, if I know that it’s there and I know the best way to mitigate that turning into a pathogen that’s going to impact my crop yields, that’s what I was referencing — being able to look at DNA, RNA or take a soil sample and identify specifically what's there and what groups of pathogens are prevalent, could provide the opportunity to take care of a challenge before it even arises.

 

                                    That’s one focus area – identifying specifically what’s in the soil. I believe the statistic is that we know about two percent of what's in the soil. We have the other 98 percent to identify with regard to the microbiome perspective, but we need more advancement in that arena. Being able to identify a pathogen, and when we should be concerned with the pathogen being present, is an area for a lot of focus and a lot of research with universities across the globe.

 

Tom:                            Another challenge that's been identified by the Alltech Harvest Analysis the past couple of years: mycotoxins detected in silage. What is going on in that area? What sort of research do you have underway?

 

Steven:                        Sure. Alltech’s mycotoxin management programs that we have in place are very successful programs in which we’re able to mitigate that from a harvested perspective. One of the areas that we're looking at on a crop science level is how we mitigate that issue on the front end. A healthy plant is better able to withstand a disease impact. One area that dovetails off of what the animal side of the business is doing is that we’re trying to identify specifically how our programs can mitigate that mycotoxin production from the start. As I mentioned, a healthy plant is better able to withstand disease. We look at tailoring our nutrition programs and tailoring our biological biostimulant programs to that specific crop to identify how we can we promote a healthier, more nutritious plant, in turn reducing the mycotoxin.

 

                                    Our success has been from post-harvest and being able to mitigate those factors. I'd say what's going on now is how we bridge all those facets — looking at it essentially from the seed to the silage. That’s one area that we've been working closely on with our colleagues from the animal side.  

 

Tom:                            Speaking of the animal side — we've been focused mostly on the crop side — but the majority of businesses in the Alltech family of companies are engaged in animal health and nutrition. Does your work within crop sciences have an impact on animal health and nutrition?

 

Steven:                        It's an interesting question. Before I joined Alltech, when I considered, for example, alfalfa or corn silage from an agronomic standpoint, I looked at quality and I looked at yield. At Alltech, when we look at alfalfa, we look at it from a milk-per-acre perspective, and that’s an interesting dynamic. Being an agronomic company that’s part of an animal company, we’re able to look at crops from a different paradigm. We’re able to tailor solutions, and we're building programs to provide a more efficient feed through the agronomic sector.

 

                                    We've looked at it from a dairy production standpoint when we incorporate our technologies in alfalfa grown for silage — for milk production, how we increase production from the field. I think it makes complete sense when you think of it and you hear it for the first time. “Okay, I see more milk by that cow eating better silage.” It’s just being able to go and talk to the animal scientists from a crop scientist perspective and work together on adding benefits through the feed. How do we increase that quality from the crops when that crop is in the field? I guess the short answer is, yes, we have developed nutritional programs or biological programs to increase that milk production, to increase that quality of silage.

 

                                    It’s an area that I think is fascinating to be a part of because, coming from the agronomic sector, I never would have thought about the animal side, and I would say it's probably the same vice versa. Usually, you stay within the lines with regard to what you're working on, and maybe there’s some overlap, but again, you typically just don’t think of that perspective.

 

                                    I would say a lot of the best ideas that we have in crop science have come from looking at the animal side and working together as one company. So, it’s been a big success for us.

 

                                    Also, we have the ability through some of the recent acquisitions made by Alltech and the growth of our animal feed business to provide an all-encompassing toolbox for our customer. We can go to a farm and deliver, not just feed, but crop inputs for that animal. The majority of farmers aren’t just growing corn, and they're not just raising pigs or working just from a dairy perspective — they’re encompassing a lot of different facets. We need to deliver an all-encompassing toolbox. The more we can deliver, the more value it is for the farmer and for the consumer. It’s a neat area to be a part of, and it’s nice to be a part of Alltech to be able to do that.

 

Tom:                            Steven, anything that we haven’t touched on here that you’d like to mention?

 

Steven:                        From a crop science perspective, it's been interesting to see the growth —and you reference the market — I think over the next five years, it’s going to be an exciting time —  not just for Alltech or Alltech Crop Science, but for the entire industry — with regard to regulation changes, with technologies that are being cycled through, with acquisitions and with the development of technology.

 

                                    Agriculture is exciting, and it’s continuing to evolve, and I would say that, from an Alltech Crop Science perspective, we're really excited to see where this goes. Our job as a company is to try to stay ahead of that and try to estimate where we see dips in the road and to try to combat a disease that we’re focusing on and be ahead of that threat.

 

                                    It’s going to be exciting to see a lot of projects come to fruition here in the next couple years. It’s an exciting time for agriculture and an exciting time for Alltech. I’m really looking forward to the next five years to come.

 

Tom:                            Dr. Steven Borst, general manager of Alltech Crop Science. Thank you so much.

 

Steven:                        Thank you.

 

 

 

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