Optimizing Breeding Process Builds Yield
Joe Byrum, Ph.D., head, soybean seed product development, Syngenta, North America: Syngenta is committed to harnessing the power of science to deliver the most advanced soybean varieties to our customers. Central to our strategy has been the innovative use of data analytics to maximize genetic gain. We’ve learned from other industries that have used analytics to enhance what they do, such as delivering packages more efficiently, enhancing medical research and scheduling airline flights to minimize delays. Syngenta is the first in agriculture to apply the same techniques to the breeding of plants, and the results have been tremendous.
Optimizing every step of the breeding process has helped accelerate the pace of developing breakthrough products. We’ve created tools to improve data accuracy and to help us identify the highest-yielding, best-performing products. Every year, Syngenta makes thousands of breeding crosses that result in millions of new lines. It would be physically impossible to trial all those lines. Instead, our data-rich trait selection process allows us to reduce the haystack by 99 percent and trial only those lines that we know have tolerance to specific pests and diseases or targeted genes. In a nutshell, what we’re doing is making better breeding choices, which means we’re better able to spot winning varieties right from the start.
But our innovation strategy goes beyond product development. The strategy also focuses on motivating and attracting the best minds inside and outside of agriculture to work with us in addressing the significant scientific challenges underlying genetic gain. Collaboration has proved essential in this effort.
Why is partnering with groups outside of ag so important to your strategy?
Byrum: We recognize that innovation happens everywhere, which is why we’ve been partnering with universities, governments, nongovernmental organizations and anyone with expertise that can help us better understand how to bring a plant to its full potential. Often that
means looking outside of agriculture. We actively seek access to cutting-edge science that complements our own teams’ innovative research, as we work to deliver transformational agricultural solutions.
“As genetic gain increases at a quickened pace, product lifecycles shorten, which means we bring advanced traits to market through a faster, more effective process.”
For example, the Crop Challenge, an innovation initiative sponsored by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) in coordination with Syngenta, invites anyone with expertise in data analytics to apply his or her skills in devising a data-backed method of increasing yield. Some participants may not have ever stepped foot on a farm before, but that doesn’t matter. If a mathematician, computer scientist, engineering student or even a business owner with a sound scientific mind has ideas, the Crop Challenge provides a platform to share them.
Syngenta and INFORMS—the world’s largest society for professionals in operations research, management science and analytics— recently announced the first Crop Challenge winners, and the level of participation far exceeded expectations. Not only are we learning more about how to improve agricultural products, we’re also encouraging others to think—often for the first time—about important issues like global food security.
What are the results of your approach?
Byrum: Our customers are reaping the benefits of this innovation strategy. As genetic gain increases at a quickened pace, product lifecycles shorten, which means we bring advanced traits to market through a faster, more effective process. Data analytics improves product placement for increased consistency and performance. After all, growers need maximum performance today, not just tomorrow.
Higher yields are the benchmark of a superior product. In the past, our products improved every year, but they did so at a slower pace. Today, our innovation strategy has boosted the average annual increase in yield across our soybean portfolio by a factor of three.
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More broadly speaking, the goal of our approach is to grow more with less. Achieving this goal has important societal benefits. The fast-growing global population needs sustainable agricultural solutions. Through The Good Growth Plan, Syngenta has made a commitment to help reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, while helping to ensure a growing global population will have enough food for future generations.
What are the next steps in breeding innovation for Syngenta?
Byrum: We’re just beginning to scratch the surface. Our innovation strategy is forward-looking, laying the foundation for future success. The focus on developing talent ensures that Syngenta will continue its role as an industry leader in applying leading-edge science to crop genetics. Attracting, motivating and engaging skilled individuals outside our industry in a collaborative effort guarantees a steady supply of fresh ideas and approaches to tackling a grower’s most difficult production challenges.
Our suite of data analytics tools has achieved impressive results, but there is more to be done. The tools undergo constant revision and improvement. We never assume the job is finished, because we know that there will always be a better way of doing things.
We are well underway to developing sophisticated analytical tools for sweet corn, field corn, sunflower and watermelon like those that we created in soybean. Because each tool is highly customized, deploying them will be a tremendous achievement. We expect these tools will be ready by 2018.
What it all means is that growers can continue to trust that when they see Syngenta on the label, they’re getting some of the most advanced genetics available.