Rodrigo Santos was named Crop Science Division President in January 2022, succeeding Liam Condon. The Brazilian born executive has held numerous roles during his 23-plus years at Monsanto/Bayer in sales, marketing, strategy and business development in Brazil, the United States and Eastern Europe.
He sat down with journalists during Bayer's recent Fields of Technology Showcase at the company's research farm in Jerseyville, Illinois.
The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.
Q: With all the innovations that Bayer is working on, what excites you the most?
A: That's a hard question to answer. Honestly, I used to answer that question easier than I am today because there are so many. We have the first RNAi technology ... that's a breakthrough one! (It offers a specific mode of action to control corn rootworm in Bayer's next generation of corn pest control SmartStax PRO, expected to launch in 2023). You have the first piercing and sucking pest biotech trait that's an incredible breakthrough (ThrvyOn cotton scheduled for release in 2023 contains a new Bt trait that targets thrips and tarnished plant bugs). Then you have short stature corn (one-third shorter than standard-height corn hybrids designed to improve standability, providing better green snap and stalk lodging tolerance with a full commercial launch planned for 2024).
If I need to highlight one that I feel will be a huge impact for farmers, it's the digital transformation we're seeing in agriculture. I think that will drive the breakthrough in terms of yield and in sustainability and also in terms of connecting farmers even more to society.
Q: We hear a lot about different challenges facing crop production, whether it's heat, drought, pests. What is public enemy No. 1 in terms of the biggest challenge to crops?
A: Climate change. That's because you don't know what the pattern will be. It can be too dry or too rainy, for example. And I think that is one of the key challenges farmers will face as well as all of society. It's tied into what you saw in the field (during the event's plot tours) when we talk about sustainability of farming and carbon sequestration. I really believe we are at the tipping point. We need to make a significant solution on that one otherwise I don't think we have a second chance. We need to do that right now.
Q: Purdue University did a survey in 2021 that found only 1% of farmers they surveyed out of 1,600 had signed carbon agreements. How do you go about persuading them to sign up for example, Bayer's program?
A: Well, it's just the beginning of that story and we are learning a lot. When I talk to the farmers about carbon I normally would say let's do this together. It's very different from our normal approach that we have where we develop a technology for 10 years and then we prelaunch and then we launch to market and we are ready to go. With carbon, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of reporting, monitoring, verify, connecting the market. This will evolve. I'm seeing farmers' interest, but if you ask me five years from now, I think that we're going to have that breakthrough. But as soon as we evolve with that, you're going to have a lot of farmers adopting a carbon program. (See story Bayer Launches ForGround at https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
Q: What makes your program of innovation different? What sets it apart from others?
A: There are three items that I believe give us a competitive advantage. The first one is the size of our investment. We are the largest investor on innovation for ag by far, almost twice our nearest competitor. So, the size of investment matters. Second is the breadth of the investment. We are investing in biotech, biologics, we're in gene editing, crop protection, germplasm and new business models like carbon. The third element is a bit more subjective. I truly believe that we have an R&D organization that is really amazing, based on their experience, based on all the success of our product launches. If you are working in R&D, it's important to see something that you are developing getting into the hands of farmers and having an impact. That's one thing that I think we've done very well here in the past 10, 20 years. I'm very proud of the team.
Q: We've been hearing this message of doing more with less, but Bayer is a company that sells crop inputs. Seems like those are at opposite ends of the spectrum. How do balance that?
A: I was talking with a farmer recently on that. We're going to move from applying herbicides on the entire field, using some new sensors and new machinery and future technologies, so that it will be applied only when a weed is detected. We're going to reduce the volume of herbicide, but that's best for the farmer and best for agriculture. We need to pursue that. We need to find new ways of creating value for the company. And I think that is completely fine. We're going to promote and develop that because that makes sense. I've worked for 25 years in this industry. I started working with farmers and continue to work closely with them, helping farmers to be successful. If we do so, we're going to be successful.
Q: There's been piloting of outcome-based pricing programs in recent years where it would guarantee a certain metric like a certain yield if it followed agronomic recommendations. Is that something Bayer is still working towards?
A: I'm very passionate to that opportunity. Let me give you an example that's coming from the digital side of our business with FieldView. You meet with the farmer and you say based on our data and our science, you should use 10,000 more seeds per acre. And the farmer says, 'I'm not sure if I should take that risk or not.' And then you offer this outcome-based model: Use this prescriptive seed rating that we are recommending with these hybrids. If you get the extra yield as a result, you pay us for this extra seed. That's a win-win situation. The farmer is getting the return on investment. And for us, it's a great deal as well because we're helping them to get higher yields and we are confident on the data that we have to support that.
We're testing five pilots here in the U.S. Risk sharing, as the example that I just explained. Some others that we have include profit sharing based around what is going to be yield above what we expected. We'll share a little more information as we test these models. And again, that goes back to my farmer centric approach. For every farmer, there will be a different approach. And that's the beauty of that system. But I like it a lot.
Q: As you look at what's been happening in the world over the past few years, there's the pandemic, food security issues, supply issues, for example. What lessons have you taken away from that and applied to Bayer as you move forward?
A: Resilience! We knew that the food system in the world is fragile. It's concerning to us. That just demonstrates for us internally how important it is for our supply chain to become more resilient. We have to have more alternatives and different sources to ensure that we can supply the farmers the "goods" they need. But if you ask me the key outcome that I hope will come out of all this -- especially in some parts of the globe like Europe -- it's how science innovation is important for them. It's important for the pandemic. It's important for the (Russia-Ukraine) war because science innovation will help us in terms of food security. I hope that now you'll hear more about Europe considering gene editing and some new technologies. I hope that this crisis gives us the relevance of science back to the next level that it's needed.
Q: It was very informative for each of the stops on the tour to have a slide that showed what you were offering in terms of new technology, traits, innovation and it made a good visual. How are you conveying that to your customers who may not realize everything that Bayer is working on or offering?
A: For me, that gets back to the equation of how can we produce some 60% more food by 2050 with less land? This is a huge challenge and to cope with that challenge there is no silver bullet. We're going to need to have a system approach. We're going to need to maximize every technology available. So for me the beauty of the science that has evolved since the 25 years I've worked in ag is that you now have digital information that allows you to say on this part of the soil, we're going to put more seed and we're going to use this biotech trait. And on this soil we're going to use less seed and with all the biotech traits. That level of precision that we are getting in ag will help us on the equation of producing more.
In the past during my early years in ag we used to hear from farmers that in this region yield was limited to this range. And now, the key question that you're going to get from visiting a farmer is how many gigas(bytes) do you have on your farm, not how many acres you have on your farm? It's how much data do you have on your farm? How many tons of carbon do you have on your farm? That's probably the new questions the farmer is going to get in the future because of that complexity in maximizing yield with less resources.
Q: What is Bayer's position on the glyphosate lawsuits?
A: I'm really sorry to see the lawsuits here in the U.S. I need to say that because the science is so clear and so bold supporting glyphosate. And even more important than the science, is the importance of glyphosate for sustainable agriculture. I'm Brazilian, so when I started my career I was seeing soil erosion, and moving to no tillage. The importance of no tillage for sustainable farming is huge as well as the importance of glyphosate for no tillage. We continue seeing that the global science is supporting glyphosate. All the regulatory agencies continue to support glyphosate. Farmers will continue to need to use that technology for sustainable agriculture. And hopefully with our five-point plan (announced in May to address potential future Roundup claims), we can deal with the litigation and put that behind. Honestly, it's frustrating to see that when you have such an alliance of science behind glyphosate. (See five point plan: https://www.bayer.com/…
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