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The future of the seed industry: Key takeaways from the American Seed Trade Association’s Corn, Soybean & Sorghum Conference

Himanshu Gupta • December 23rd, 2020.

As the saying goes, good seed makes good crop.

But in a world where the impacts of climate change make it increasingly difficult for farmers to produce a good crop — intensified droughts, shifting precipitation patterns, flooding, intense heat waves, wildfires — the value of effective, resilient, and profit-yielding seed becomes exponentially more important.

The seed industry knows this, and understands the challenges that farmers face today. Their core focus is providing farmers around the world with seeds suited to the climate and needs of the local farmers and food systems.

At the American Seed Trade Association’s Corn, Soybean & Sorghum Conference (CSS ASTA) last week, we heard from top seed industry experts across the agricultural value chain as they discussed the future of the seed industry in a climate-changing world.

We were selected as a top ag-tech startup in seed and were thrilled to share how our agri-climate intelligence tools are driving a new paradigm in weather and climate management for seed companies around the world. This 10 minute presentation is not publicly available, however, if you’d like access, please reach out to media@climate.ai.

Some of our key takeaways from the event include: seed companies have been growing their focus on resilience to prepare for the impacts of climate change; experts predict a bullish market for American farmers in the next few years; and new technologies and collaboration provide a massive opportunity for the seed industry.

A consensus on the key challenges for the future of crop production

Creating a sustainable food and agriculture system to feed the growing world population will take a massive concerted effort from stakeholders along the value chain.

The farmers that grow our food currently face a storm of obstacles: coping with extreme weather and soil degradation; satisfying consumers’ changing tastes and expectations; adopting new technologies; and of course, the most important and often most difficult: staying economically viable.

The seed industry is one of society’s most powerful tools to combat these problems through breeding, gene editing, and other new enabling technologies. They have created quality seeds that can resist heat, drought, limited nitrogen nutrition, and pests, resulting in unprecedented crop productivity and nutrition gains. For example, seed breeders have been able to develop corn with higher yields; rice that can manage nitrogen in the soil it’s growing in more efficiently; and sugar beets that can resist threatening pests and diseases like Rhizomania.

Seed: a lever for resilience

Luckily, the seed industry has always embraced new innovation. Experts at the conference discussed several solutions and ways to future-proof agriculture. They included:

1. Creating seeds with traits that will succeed in a climate-changed world

Global warming means higher temperatures and an increase in extreme weather conditions. But certain plant varieties can prosper even in extreme weather conditions, such as drought or extreme heat and cold, thanks to the selection of the right genes.

Take corn, for example. It’s one of the US’ biggest cash crops. But modern corn varieties have been bred from only a small fraction of the global maize population. This limited biodiversity of the crop could mean it’s vulnerable in a shifting climate, as the Midwest where it’s largely grown could begin to experience weather patterns that are increasingly sub-optimal.

Seed companies from Corteva to Bayer have already developed new varieties of corn in the past few decades to tackle this exact problem

Bayer now believes a short-stature corn it has bred, which is 3 feet shorter than today’s average hybrids, holds advantages that include reducing crop loss, grain snap (when winds break corn stalks), and root lodging (when roots aren’t long enough to anchor the corn plant). Less grain snap and root lodging means the greater ability to withstand more rainfall and subsequent flooding that is occurring in the Midwest thanks to climate change.

In addition, factors like longer roots, more plant diversity, microbial activity in soil, and certain types of farming practices mean more soil carbon sequestration — key for fighting climate change.

Of course, every part of the world will experience different types of weather changes. This means that solutions must be geared towards the combination of challenges unique to each location.

2. Collaboration breeds excellence

We need new climate-adapted seeds, but creating new seed varieties can take 10–15 years due to the amount of growing seasons it takes to test and perfect a variety.

Big seed companies have invested in upstarts across the agricultural space to add value to their core seed business.

Take Corteva, for example. It invested early on in Caribou Bioscience, a biotech startup which develops CRISPR cellular engineering and analysis technology. CRISPR technology allows scientists to easily alter DNA sequences and modify genes in a much less invasive, much more precise way than ever before (more on this groundbreaking technology below). It can be used to create better seeds compared with conventional hybrid methods and shorten the production timeline by five to 10 years.

Syngenta, as well, has collaborated with companies such as Truterra (formerly Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN) on technology for growers. Truterra has its own technology platform with insights for farmers to synthesize soil, weather, economic and farm management data, and Syngenta has its AgriEdge platform with more data analytics. Collaborations like these streamline metrics and data that growers use to make decisions that maximize yield, profit, and sustainability on their farms.

In addition, seed companies have long worked with academia and nonprofits. Many seed companies sponsor plots at research universities, for example. This fosters a collaborative research environment where top scientists from public and private sector can drive innovation in seed systems.

Beyond this, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, (also known as the International Seed Treaty), is a UN-backed global agreement which aims at guaranteeing food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use and sharing of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. As the climate continues to shift, this treaty will be critical for sharing germplasm across borders to enable development of climate-resilient seed for farmers small and large around the world.

3. New technological innovation and opportunities

Many seed companies are at their core biotechnology companies. They’re known for quickly taking up innovations that can help with their mission of breeding new advantageous seed varieties, scaling across production acres quickly and effectively, and leveraging technology that they believe will drive a better profits for the farmers they supply.

Seed companies have picked up technologies including CRISPR and base editing, which enable more effective precision editing of seeds. It’s a big deal — CRISPR technology inventors Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Cibus, a biotechnology company, compared gene editing with CRISPR to using “genetic scissors” — to make directed spelling cuts and swaps in DNA, with no linkage drag (pulling along unnecessary genes when attempting to breed for a trait). In genetic engineering, scientists are using a process similar to conventional plant breeding: swapping genetic information between species. With conventional plant breeding, this occurs at random; with genetic engineering, scientists choose a few genetic constructs of interest to insert into chosen plants. Genetic engineering still takes several back-and-forths to find how the new desired traits express in crops, but often, significantly less time than selective breeding, and also with much less linkage drag of undesirable traits into the new species.

Pairwise, an agriculture startup, uses base editing technology to look closely at agricultural crops and find genes that have been lost through domestication and selective breeding. This technology can create crops from wild species, or improve traits in row and consumer crops, enabling access to a much larger gene pool to source traits from.

4. Paying farmers for carbon sequestration is a massive opportunity

Dan Sasse from AgResources gave an agriculture industry outlook and was excited about the possibility of a Biden administration paying farmers for their work sequestering carbon.

Soil carbon sequestration is a “natural climate solution” that the president-elect has indicated interest in. Farming releases carbon from the ground by harvesting crops and disturbing soil, but it can also keep carbon and nitrogen in the ground by optimizing microbial content and sustainable agricultural practices.

Measuring how much carbon agricultural plots can sequester and paying farmers for it, like another cash crop, would be a giant opportunity to help farmers who often operate on razor-thin margins

The challenges ahead are not easy — there is no one technology that will spark the creation of the sustainable, profitable, nutritious, and equitable agriculture system that we continuously strive towards. However, the seed industry is undoubtedly one of the most powerful levers we as a planet to shape the future of food, fuel, and fiber.

Here at ClimateAi, we are honored to be working with some of the top seed companies in the world, helping them make weather-intelligent, crop variety-specific decisions anywhere from 1 day to 40 years into the future.

If you are a food or agriculture business and you wish to learn more about what weather intelligence can do for your business, please feel free to reach out to us through our website.

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