The gulf between the general public and those who understand what is required in modern agriculture appears to be widening.

“Part of the success farmers have had is due to a steady stream of agricultural technologies that have helped them stay on the leading edge of productivity,” said Jack Boyne, director of communications for Bayer CropScience, during a late-February press conference. However, as a study commissioned by CropLife America (CLA) reveals, “the rate of technological innovations reaching the farmer is in decline. Why? Simply because it’s difficult, it’s expensive and it’s time-consuming.”

Boyne, based in North Carolina and also a member of the CLA Communications Committee, said the study “also tells us that most people are understandably concerned about the products used to protect their food from weeds, insects and pathogens. But they have little knowledge of the benefits our products provide or of the rigorous procedures in place to ensure their safety to humans and the environment.

“For example, they don’t know that nearly 50 percent of the harvest would be lost if these pests weren’t controlled. They don’t know that it takes approximately 10 years of testing to bring a product to market, during which time half the product’s patent protection is lost. They don’t know that products are evaluated not only for possible effects on human health but also for their impacts in wildlife and the environment. They don’t know that only one product out of 100,000 evaluated actually makes it to market. And they certainly don’t know that today’s products are better tested, more selective and more precisely applied than ever before — often a dose is measured in fractions of grams per acre.”

For the full study, see Phillips McDougal study.

Information push

The crop protection industry’s efforts “represent an Olympic-like commitment of excellence and innovation that serves one of the most basic needs that the 6 billion people on this planet have three times a day: an interest in having a safe and abundant food supply,” said Jay Vroom, CLA president and CEO.

To keep this fact before the public, CLA is “undertaking an initiative of communications outreach. … Under the broad banner of ‘modern agriculture, food for all’ there’s been a tremendous amount of mass-media attention over the last couple of years with respect to … the way our food is produced, how much food we produce, what kind of calories are available to people, the price and availability, on and on.”

That attention hasn’t always been positive for the industry. A “fair amount of partial information and inaccurate information” has appeared in the popular press, said Vroom. “We, along with our colleagues across agriculture — both crop and animal, are beginning to understand we need to step up, speak out and deliver the facts as we know them.”

(CropLife America is a crop protection association that represents the companies that develop, manufacture, formulate and distribute crop protection chemicals and plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the United States. For a list of CLA members, see CLA Members.)

The CLA’s “modern agriculture, food for all” initiative is focused around four key message themes.

• Crop protection is an equivalent — or an important component of — an enhanced food quality/quantity equation.

• Crop protection is equated with the delivery of environmental services that farmers provide at the behest of society. That, said Vroom, is an “embodiment of our collective commitment of agriculture to ‘walk the talk’ of daily sustainability.”

• Crop protection products are highly regulated by very qualified government scientists employing the very best known science to employ risk assessment to determine the safety of industry products and how they can best be used.

• The crop protection industry “has always been grounded in innovation and forward-looking thoughts in how to comport ourselves in the marketplace.”

The study

Conducted at the request of CLA and the European Crop Protection Association, the recent Phillips McDougall Consultancy Firm study looks into the investment of new agrichemical products, discovery, development and registration.

The current world population is approximately 6.6 billion. It is estimated that more than half the people who have ever been alive on this planet are currently alive.

“We know that the population is continuing to grow and, expectations are that by the middle of this century, the world population will be at, or above, 9 billion,” said Vroom.

That, combined with the expectation that the 9 billion in 2050 will have a better diet than is supplied today — “and of the 6.6 billion today on the planet, some 1 billion (according to UN estimates) are undernourished or facing starvation — means we have a big job to do. Estimates are that in the next 40 years we’ll annually need to produce 70 percent more food than we do today.”

The study compares three periods of time, starting with data collected in 1995 that reveals an aggregate, average cost per new active ingredient brought into the marketplace worldwide was near $152 million. In 2000, that number jumped on average — per new, active ingredient — to $184 million. In the latest period of 2005 to 2008, on average, the cost of a new, active ingredient reaching the market — based on expenditures in research and development — is over $256 million. Vroom pointed out that’s a 39 percent increase in costs.

For more about a 2009 CLA study on insecticides, see Insecticides’ benefits — CropLife study.

Drivers

So what are the drivers in the growing investment expense?

The study breaks down the $256 million by, among other things, registration cost, environmental chemistry cost, toxicology investment, and field trial expenses.

Over the three periods studied, datasets show that in 1995 the breakdown was fairly well distributed among the aforementioned list of costs. By 2000, “environmental chemistry expenses were growing. We’d gotten back to a more balanced distribution of costs by 2005 through 2008.”

To bolster his points, Vroom pointed to work done by Leonard Gianessi, director of the Crop Protection Research Institute. Gianessi has “done a great deal of research into the benefits on a crop-by-crop basis for individual chemistry products used in crop protection. In summary, (his findings) are that without herbicides crops lost annually in the United States would be in excess of 288 billion pounds. Fungicides save about 97 billion pounds of crop output per year. Insecticides save about 144 billion pounds.”

Without crop protection products, CLA estimates that “something approaching 50 percent of our total food volume supply would be destroyed by pests. … About $13 billion worth of crops is preserved by herbicides, about $12 billion to $13 billion by fungicides, and about $23 billion in losses are avoided due to insecticides.”

Success rates

The new study also looks at CLA members’ rate of success with finding new or better molecules during research. In 1995, the average was “about one out of 52,500 new, unique molecules investigated would make it through research, development and to the marketplace after regulatory approvals,” said Vroom. “That jumped dramatically to nearly (1 out of) 140,000 in 2000. And it has stayed at about that level” in recent years.

There are many drivers behind this lower success rate. One of the largest: member companies are employing much more sophisticated scientific equipment that allows them to do higher volumes of screening than they did even 15 years ago.

Another factor is the amount of time consumed from the discovery of a new molecule until the resulting product reaches market after regulatory approval in environmental agencies around the world. In 1995, it took about 8.3 years from discovery to marketplace. Today, that has lengthened to nearly 10 years.

And patent protection for new, unique molecules and other patented products is now limited to 20 years, according to WTO commitments. So, “virtually half the patent life would be consumed by the discovery to first day in the marketplace.”

Why are expenses and development time rising?

“Well, increased regulatory expectation, overall — and specifically from environmental regulatory agencies — while evaluating new crop protection products grow every day. Examples of regulatory burdens include spray drift regulations … and consideration of the protection of endangered species, such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“We see decreased public funding for agricultural research, primarily at the USDA. And, fundamentally, we’ve found all the easily-found crop protection molecules. The ones that are (more difficult) to discover (explains) why we’re having to look harder and over many more options to find new and better products.”

The future

The new study “helps us determine where we’ve been but also looks forward to 2012 and what challenges face crop protection products in the future,” said Vroom. “The most recent data suggests our industry’s investment in research and development of new active ingredients was about $2.3 billion in 2007. The study forecast is that will jump to $2.9 billion in 2012.”

Since 2000, the industry has seen a near 40 percent increase in sunk costs of research and development. Development costs have jumped nearly 85 percent with field trial expenses “skyrocketing” over 100 percent.

“The challenges facing agriculture are real,” said Vroom.

For more on CropLife America, see CropLifeAmerica.org.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com