In the second in a three-part series looking at the work of chemical company BASF, Ben Pike talks to Rob Gladwin, lead on business development and sustainability for BASF.
Manufacturers of crop protection products need a predictable and science-based legislative playing field if they are to provide UK farmers with the tools they need to succeed, according to Rob Gladwin.
He says the world’s best agricultural innovators make ‘critical, multi-million pound decisions’ 10 years before a product is brought to market and warned without confidence, product innovation could be stifled.
“We will invest in a new active ingredient (AI) today which won’t be on sale until 2025, so we need to know what sort of regulatory environment that product is going to be entering,” Mr Gladwin says.
Creating that level playing field requires BASF to engage in the promotion of the value of its innovations, both as a single voice and in collaboration with industry partners.
Domestically, the company plays a leading role in the promotion of stewardship campaigns to ensure UK farmers use agrochemicals responsibly. Globally, it has to fight its corner in a bid to rebalance what Mr Gladwin says is an increasingly ideological approach to regulation of crop protection products in Europe.
To do this, the company uses sustainability as one of its guiding principles. It is an often-used phrase, but Mr Gladwin says BASF has a clear definition.
“We have three core pillars that we measure against when we talk about sustainability – economic, social and environmental,” he says.
“If a business is not profitable then it is not sustainable, but we’re not talking about profit at all costs – it has to fulfill our environmental and social credentials too.
“We do not just pay lip service to these three components, they are an important part of the business and have been for some time.”
Mr Gladwin says the agro-chemical industry ‘creates a lot of benefits which get lost in the noise and rhetoric in Europe’, particularly with arguments put forward by single-issue environmental campaign groups.
“The challenge we have at EU level is with an over-precautionary approach to regulation. It is viewed that if a product has a particular hazard characteristic, regardless of the dose or exposure, then the product cannot be registered as a crop protection material.
“Balancing production with environmental protection is key but perhaps it has gone too far and it will eventually lead to fewer products being available in Europe compared to the rest of the world.”
While the situation in Europe may be tougher than it has been, Mr Gladwin says progress has been made in the UK.
“It doesn’t matter what colour the government is, they all tend to all agree innovation is needed and crop protection is part of this, based on science.”
Part of that increased understanding is a result of the work done by companies such as BASF in collaboration with the rest of the farming industry.
Mr Gladwin says a good example of teamwork was the Healthy Harvest report launched in 2014 which presented a dossier of evidence on the impact the depletion of crop protection products would have on UK food production.
It was led by the Crop Protection Association, the Agricultural Industries Confederation and the NFU, along with levy and research bodies and other industry partners.
“That was a good example of bringing the industry together to highlight the challenges we all face,” Mr Gladwin says.
“Lobbying is about raising the level of awareness and knowledge with key stakeholders.”
At EU level, that united front is replicated with a joined-up message from agricultural businesses operating across member states being fronted by the likes of European farming union Copa-Cogeca and the European Crop Protection Association.
Involvement in and promotion of stewardship campaigns is an important role for BASF, Mr Gladwin says, adding the Voluntary Initiative (VI), and EU-wide project – TOPPS – has been hugely successful in communicating best practice to protect biodiversity and water quality.
“We must not take these initiatives for granted,” he says. “The VI has a strong focus on water protection but has lots of other aspects to it.
“The industry should be proud of what it has done but not to rest on its laurels and keep it going. Research has shown if you stop promoting best practice it tends not to be top of growers’ minds, so we shouldn’t make any apologies for repeating the messages.”
As well as more generic best-practice campaigns, Mr Gladwin says BASF also acts alone, or in smaller collaborations, to protect the registration of key active ingredients used in its products. It recently launched a Metazachlor Matters campaign promoting responsible use of the key AI used in oilseed rape growers’ herbicide programme.
“Certain AIs are coming under pressure due to detections in water, so we are working as an organisation either on our own or together to reduce the risk.”
Mr Gladwin says the sensitive political environment in Europe is an important factor in BASF’s development of new technologies.
He says the company was keeping ‘a watching brief’ on genetic modification in Europe but the major investment in this area would be reserved for regions of the world which were more accepting of the technology.
But he says farmers in the UK could expect to see new biological-based products being launched by BASF in the next few years. Alongside our core business of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides.
“We are also looking at water, nutrients and plant stress management and we will be introducing some developments in the next two years.
“We are looking to take an overall crop production approach from before the seed goes into the ground, right through to post-harvest.”
BASF is the corporate sponsor of FG Insight’s 24 Hours in Farming initiative, taking place from 5am on August 20 until 5am on August 21, 2015, to promote farming to the wider public.
For 24 hours, the Farmers Guardian team will be collating photos, videos and stories from UK farmers and those working within the wider agricultural industry, about the day’s activities.
Farmers Guardian editor Emma Penny says while this is a fun way to promote the world of farming, it has a serious side to it too.
“We want to highlight everything farmers and their families do and what the industry does as a whole, to show how hard-working the industry is and how much effort goes into producing food and energy and shaping the countryside.”
BASF’s Joe Dixon says: “We work with farmers every day to solve real problems and we wanted to support 24 Hours in Farming to raise awareness of the challenges farmers face on a daily basis.
“We also want to show just how innovative farmers are at overcoming them. We want to prove farming really is the biggest job on earth.”