Agronomy insight

Article taken from The Farmer Club New Year Journal


Over the past 40 years agronomy companies have built businesses by providing crop protection advice based on a comprehensive armoury of agrochemistry.

Increasingly, this core business is under threat.  Tougher regulation, particularly in the EU, has reduced a steady flow of new products to a trickle, and hastened the demise of many valuable actives.

The agchem business won't disappear overnight, but agronomy companies will have to broaden their offer to survive, explains Chris Clayton, managing director of Agrovista.

"The rate of innovation in the agchem sector has slowed dramatically, as legislation has tightened.  A lot of chemistry has also come off patent, which is fundamentally taking value out of the market."

The level of manufacturer consolidation - Dow and DuPont, ChemChina and Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto - demonstrates the challenging time, he says.

Concentration of power

"That is a huge concentration of power.  It is not all bad - it provides critical mass to sustain a true R & D platform, but that money is increasingling being invested in the seeds and traits area, seen as the future growth model.

"We have to adapt - we cannot sustain the necessary returns to shareholders by focusing solely on crop protection chemistry."

Mother Nature is also having an impact, Mr Clayton adds.  "For 20 years we have been operating unsustainable crop rotations of early-drilled wheat and rape.  The grass-weed burden we now see, primarily black-grass, is a direct result of that.  Some is now impossible to control with the chemical options that remain."

The role of the agronomist is changing rapidly, and the pace will accelerate as more senior staff, who started out in the late 1970s and 80s, when the agchem market took off, retire or move on.

"That's why we are investing in youth, the agronomists of the future, taking up to 10 trainees a year, says Mr Clayton.  "Agronomy is becoming a very different job, providing different job, providing different services across a broad scope of activity.

"We invested in Ebbage Seeds last year, making it easier to introduce seed into our technical programmes and work with varieties in our agronomy development, which we can then tie into end markets.

"We are developing our nutrition work, and biostimulants are an important area.  We are also spending a lot of time and money developing alternative methods to tackle problem grass-weeds, using cover crops and spring cropping, so farmers can continue to farm productive and profitable cereal-based rotations.

"We are also very conscious of the problems facing oilseed rape, and are working hard to develop non-chemical techniques to improve the crop's viability."

Precision farming

One of the biggest areas of spend is precision agriculture and IT. Agrovista has a variety of integrated services, backed by a range of hardware and software tools, which help target inputs more effectively, Mr Clayton explains.

"Farmers of the future are going to demand this and more - they will need agronomists to be much more IT savvy than now.  Some early adopters have really embraced this, but most farmers struggle to understand the benefits.

One big question remains - how to turn all this work into income.  "It's a good question.  A lot of the work we pioneered with cover crops was copied.  Protecting investments is a huge problem, and we have to be cognisant of that.

"That is why we are also bringing new technology to the industry that is easily transferable onto farm in one or two seasons.  This includes novel spray application methods to enhance chemical performance, alternative spring cropping and developing new markets for existing chemistry.  Without that, it would be very difficult to get a return.

"We've seen that in the area of precision farming.  It's been a long-term process, and most of us haven't quite got into the black."

Brexit route to better legislation?

Brexit could result in a more science-based approach to agrochemical legislation, potentially opening the door to new products and preserving  existing ones, Mr Clayton believes.

"R&D companies are unwilling to undertake late-stage development in the EU, due to the legislators' insistence of looking at hazard, rather than risk.

"The UK government is one of the few in the EU that bases its decision on scientific evidence.  But, with France voting down just about everything, and Germany usually abstaining, getting a qualified majority is very difficult.

"We can only hope the UK government will continue to adopt a science-based approach post-Brexit. This will incur the wrath of the green lobby, so the farming industry will have a huge role to play in balancing the argument.

"A strong farming lobby will be far more effective than an industry lobby, which is automatically discounted due to to self-interest."


Sponsored Article

This article is produced in collaboration with advice and supply company Agrovista, sponsor of the Farmers Club Journal envelope.


12 January 2017

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