Editor's Note: DTN and Progressive Farmer editors Gregg Hillyer and Pamela Smith sat down via Zoom for an exclusive interview with Corteva Agriscience CEO Jim Collins. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity.
DTN: Corteva released some aggressive sustainability statements last year. What progress has been made, and why should the company's efforts in this area matter to farmers?
Collins: We launched our sustainability goals almost a year ago that are broad-reaching across a number of categories. Sustainability and meeting those goals start with sharing agricultural best practices. It's about us developing new technologies and techniques that can lead to efforts to improve soil health, continue to drive improvements in water quality, and keeping a very watchful eye around reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Why is it good for farmers? Well, the overall objective is to help growers improve yield, while also increasing the sustainability of food production globally. That will help farmers individually and collectively be more sustainable.
I think one of the issues in the past has been the scalability of some of these technologies and techniques. I believe we're turning a real corner with the understanding that these techniques have to be broadly adopted and adapted. It starts with products, clearly from us, things like chemistries and different trait packages that allow growers to do more, with less inputs.
As we progress towards our 10-year horizon goals, we're going to train a lot of farmers. We're going to help them optimize inputs. We're going to do things that we believe will improve climate resilience. We're going to work to create more trust with society as we go forward, and help to continue to reduce climate risk, while growing demand for our products as we look to sell farmers the products that can drive transformation.
DTN: What makes Corteva's sustainability efforts different from others?
Collins: I think, first, it's being a 100% focused agriculture company. We're able to bring a whole-acre solution to the grower. We can think more broadly about all of the ways that growers interact with weather and soil and machinery and inputs; and so, we can take a very holistic approach.
We've also got a sales team around the world that is widely known under our Pioneer seed brand as having a very hands-on direct connection to the grower. We're not sitting in some office or on a computer trying to work with our customers. We're out there in the fields with them every day walking those acres and working with them to try new things. It's that broad perspective that we have from all over the world that allows us to bring the best practices that we're learning about and consolidate all that and bring that together.
And it's this holistic approach that we're trying to take around optimizing inputs and driving yield, while making sure that we don't sacrifice profitability and productivity.
DTN: How disruptive have the hedge fund Starboard Value efforts been? Where is that situation, and how should farmers view those actions?
(Editor's note: As one of the most active corporate agitators, Starboard Value sparked a call earlier this year for CEO change and addition of board members -- contending the company's operating performance could be "meaningfully improved.")
Collins: Our board has been actively engaged in constructive discussions with Starboard to come to a resolution that is in all stakeholders' best interests. We continue to work toward that goal, but in the meantime, my own energies and those of my team are entirely focused on maintaining the momentum we have built. Across the organization, we are focused on delivering on our industry-leading pipeline, leveraging our unparalleled route-to-market, enhancing our product mix, and advancing cost and productivity actions -- all actions that improve our ability to serve farmers. With our peers now reporting, we can clearly see our outperformance over the last year, and we continue to execute well in the marketplace to deliver for our customers as well as our shareholders.
DTN: Corteva has had a great history with winning yields in the National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest (current record of 616 bushels was produced from a Pioneer hybrid). What does a field of corn look like in 10 years?
Collins: I'm always amazed by the yield contest winners. I've been reminded by our researchers, back in the '30s and '40s, folks were winning the yield contests with 200 bushels an acre. We thought it was just staggering that we could get that kind of yield out of the plant. And here we are today with a record of 616 bushels per acre.
What it proves is the genetic potential that is already on board. The corn plant today has the ability to deliver those kinds of yields. But what really matters is how we go about that. It's the agronomy of farming. It's not just the genetics, and it's not just the new products and the new chemistry, but it is the act of farming and agronomy. And so, more and more, it means we have to do everything we can to bring information to bear so that growers know how to squeeze the next 100 bushels and the next 100 bushels out of it. We don't have to develop any more products to get those kinds of yield. We just have to put more information in our customers' hands so they can go do what they do best. And that's be really great farmers.
DTN: Germplasm is certainly important, but so are the traits Corteva is developing. The Enlist trait was planted on 20% of U.S. soybean acres in 2020. What's the goal in 2021 and beyond? And will you continue to offer Xtend as part of your trait portfolio?
Collins: We continue to be very, very excited about the ramp-up of Enlist, and that excitement comes directly from our customer farmer feedback this past year on the use of the system. And because they're able to use the system properly, they're getting amazing weed control. Yes, Enlist was on about 20% of U.S. soybean acres this past year; that could rise to approximately 30% this year with the combination of the lineup that we have on the Pioneer brand, but also many of the licensees that are out there such as with the Stine brand.
We still do plan to offer the Roundup Ready Xtend platform, as well. We think there are acreages in the U.S. where that system may make sense. But, clearly, our energy, our efforts, our focus is going to be to continue to ramp up Enlist and put it into a place where it can be the preeminent system going forward.
DTN: Was there a reason behind not seeking a new registration for your dicamba herbicide FeXapan? You seem to be setting yourself apart a little bit with all the legal liabilities that we've seen in the marketplace.
Collins: We made a strictly business decision to discontinue the sales of our own branded version of dicamba. There are a number of other really great brands out there. When we initially launched that product, we thought we needed it in our lineup to have a total package around the grower. But as we start to pivot and see continued very strong demand for the Enlist technology, we decided it was best to just focus there. That way, all of our resources, all of our energy can be focused on customers, applicator training, sales and distribution to make sure that the Enlist system is positioned properly going forward. ... We have one focus, and that's where we're going to put ours.
(Editor's Note: Corteva Agriscience confirms that it does have a developmental dicamba choline product presently undergoing review at EPA for registration. The company cannot speculate on the timing of completion of that review and, as such, cannot comment further on potential commercial plans.)
DTN: Biologicals and green chemistry can be a really confusing space from a grower's perspective. Can you talk about where that's headed?
Collins: The whole biologicals area is a really interesting space to explore. Clearly, regulators and society would appreciate more and more of the pest control being done from greener solutions that products in this biological space really do represent. The problem in the past has been the reproducibility and the predictability of the performance of those products. The approach that we have taken is, rather than spend our efforts on the discovery of those different technologies, we're going to do what we do best. And that is product development and the route to market.
There are hundreds of biotech startups developing biological and microbial types of programs for which it is still unknown whether they are as effective as they claim. With our ability to detect very subtle differences in yield from things like better seed treatment applications, better applications of crop protection, and then you work micronutrients and biological components in there, the company that can detect and reproduce those results day in and day out is the one that I think really has the advantages as we go forward. So, rather than lock ourselves into one technology, let's be the company that takes advantage of all of those discoveries. To bring these to the grower, to get to the market, and to do it in a very reproducible way, that's where Corteva can really shine and make sure that we're putting those products together, so they do the most for the grower.
DTN: The Biden administration is putting a lot of focus on climate and carbon sequestration. What's Corteva's position on climate change? And does the company plan to offer some sort of carbon sequestration incentive program for growers?
Collins: A couple years back at the World Food Prize, we led part of the discussion about a more climate-positive approach to agriculture. I thought that term worked really well back then. Well, it's really morphed a bit more to climate regenerative -- that is the terminology now. We're committed to building a very positive climate strategy focused on addressing the opportunities that come through the adaptation of our products and the resilience of our products and our customers.
Also, we have our own operations, which produce some greenhouse gas emissions. We've got to put ourselves in a position where we're going to reduce our own footprint. In this next year's cycle, we will take some time to really understand what our baselines are and expect that around mid-2021 we will set targets and share our climate strategy. I'm excited about the work that's going on behind the scenes.
I do think the incoming administration, with some of the elements they've already talked about, will be very positive for growers. We know that growers are already the best stewards of their land. The beauty of what we're talking about here going forward is how do they get paid for those actions and activity? So, I'm excited, as these actions could represent a nice new source of income for growers who are already doing them. Now, they get a chance to get rewarded for that.
DTN: How do you educate farmers or get the right message out there on these climate strategies and efforts like carbon sequestration?
Collins: I think folks are really waking up to the fact that we need to take some steps. Who better to lead that charge than our farmer customers who every day think about how we use these natural resources to help feed the planet, to do more with less? We're asking them to already be incredible stewards. What I like about the message today is we're going to help you get paid for those good efforts, as well.
I think the other thing is, it has to be scalable. It can't be something that causes a farmer to have to spend a lot more and causes them not to be as productive. Otherwise, we'll be taking a step backwards on the productivity curve. And one of the best ways I know to do that is through demonstrations. Growers seeing other growers implementing large-scale systems is one of the best ways to demonstrate that it can be done.
DTN: What is it that really gets you revved up? What are you really excited about that you just see the potential in agriculture?
Collins: First of all, having been in this industry 36-plus years, what gets me really excited is the role that technology plays in continuing to move us forward in agriculture. Every year is different, right? Mother Nature throws things at us every year. In this global pandemic, you see what happened, right? We all rose to the occasion. Our customers rose to the occasion and produced one of the largest crops that we ever had in North America. And we produced it with great quality. And, as a seed supplier and a crop protection supplier, I don't think we missed a shipment. So, the first thing is the resilience technology helps us maintain. It continues to drive us forward.
And, then, the role that technology is playing, whether it's biotech, or new breeding techniques, or the use of digital knowledge and information, we continue to learn a lot about how to do more with less. With every turn, we get better. To be a young person thinking about a career in agriculture, that career looks very different today than it did just 10 short years ago. And that's just because of the role that technology will play. You can only imagine what the next 20 years will bring.
Gregg Hillyer can be reached at Gregg.firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @GreggHillyer
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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