Business / Companies

Farming innovation gets overseas inputs

By WANG CHAO (China Daily) Updated: 2014-12-29 09:14

"When I sit in the middle of a vast farm in Northeast China and close my eyes, I imagine I'm sitting in the Midwest of the US or in the middle of Australia. There they use $3 million air tractors to spray pesticides and a 12-meter harvester to harvest crops."

In Sichuan, farmers cultivate plots of land of as little as a 10th of a hectare and grow both wheat and pepper on it, he says.

As China head of Bayer CropScience, part of the multinational research-based Bayer Group, whose headquarters are in Leverkusen, Germany, Hulme has to bear this diversity in mind and adapt to methods accordingly.

The company plans to introduce 22 new products such as new-formula pesticide and herbicide over the next five years, he says, and to put between five and 10 of them on the market in China over the coming year.

There is at least one exception to the huge national diversity Hulme so admires in Chinese farming: all provinces have a common ill in that they use huge amounts of pesticide and fertilizers-in fact three times as much as in developed countries.

In keeping with that, his brothers' farm uses 10 to 20 liters of pesticide for every hectare a year, while in China the equivalent dose is 40 to 60 liters a year.

The Chinese government is well aware of the problem and is trying to do something about it, and the Ministry of Commerce plans zero growth in pesticide use over the next few years.

"Bayer is working with the government by giving professional suggestions, and we can use the model in North America and Europe for reference," Hulme says.

Traditional pesticides that used to be effective are much less now because insects have developed immunity over the years, he says, and bigger doses are needed, which is detrimental to the health of farmers and to the environment.

"Our focus has switched to more targeted needs during a specific time, such as protecting seeds from diseases for 40 to 50 days after the seedling season, or to extend the storage time of tomatoes so they last longer in transport and in the shop."

As a manufacturer of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, Bayer CropScience, like other multinationals, is often challenged over the price of its products.

"Generally it takes eight to 10 years to develop a new product, and it costs 400 million euros ($490 million) to develop a product from the beginning," Hulme says. "Actually, the cost of chemicals is a small part of farmers' overall costs compared with the cost of seeds. Where a smaller dose is much more effective it is actually more cost-effective than using cheaper products."

On Dec 1, Hulme marked the third anniversary of his arrival in China, and in his time in the country he has stepped foot in 24 provinces; he has seen the red, acidic soil in the south and the black, fertile soil in the northeast.

He drinks Baijiu, is prepared to try exotic foods and never asks about what is being served to him, he says.

Bayer CropScience has set up five bio-agri solution centers across China, and Hulme leads a team of 1,200 scientists. Half of them work in fields, training farmers in the proper and safe use of the company's products.

"It's a good investment for us, because previously we innovated well, but got no chance to integrate what we were doing into real farming practice."

His work is becoming easier with the proliferation of the Internet and people's increasing awareness of food safety, he says.

Growing up on the family farm, he remembers his father having to forgo entering college because the family business needed his full attention as the only son. The 1,200-hectare farm could sustain only two or three families; after working in the farm for a year, he had to go out and look for an additional job because the land was not productive enough.

"As a former farmer, I empathize with Chinese farmers," Hulme says.

"The challenges they face are much more serious than those of Australian farmers."

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