A conversation with…
John Soper, DuPont Pioneer Vice President of crop genetics and research development
OCJ: This is among the most exciting times in the history of the human cultivation of crops. From a broad industry perspective, what do the coming years hold in terms of seed and crop production technology?
John: We have an incredible challenge ahead of us as we strive to improve agricultural productivity by nearly two-fold between now and 2050 to feed the growing global population. In order the meet this goal, I believe that we will need both genetic improvement solutions as well as further improvements in agricultural production systems to create higher productivity in an environmentally sustainable manner. I envision that as time moves forward, we will see collaborations that result in a true systems approach that will combine elite genetic solutions with leading edge production system technologies.
OCJ: This year obviously highlighted the challenges associated with limited water availability. How will the advent of drought-resistant crops change production in coming years?
John: Pioneer has been a leader in developing drought tolerant crops since the 1950s when Pioneer began a research program devoted to drought tolerant corn in Nebraska. Today, Pioneer has a two-pronged approach to developing drought tolerant crops. The first approach is using molecular marker technologies to identify and stack native genes for drought tolerance. The first results of this approach have now been commercialized under the Optimum AQUAmax trademark. During the widespread drought of 2012, these products have demonstrated an 8% yield advantage over competitive products in drought prone environments and also have demonstrated excellent yield performance in normal environments. The second approach involves developing biotechnology approaches to elevate drought tolerance. We will continue work on both approaches to ensure growers the best possible drought tolerance possible.
OCJ: What other technological advances can farmers expect to see from DuPont Pioneer in the future?
John: We are working on a number of research fronts. Obviously, yield improvement is at the forefront of our efforts. We have doubled yields over the past 50 years and need to repeat this feat during the next 50. In addition to drought, we are working on improving nitrogen utilization efficiency in corn that will achieve higher yields with lower nitrogen applications. Another key focus area is development of new modes of action for insect protection. Replacing first generation insect protection traits will occur, and providing multiple modes of action in genetic stacks will improve the stability of the deployed traits. An additional front is improvement of the end-use value of agricultural products. An example is our 2012 commercialization of Plenish high oleic soybeans that provides food companies with soy oil having better cooking stability and health attributes. DuPont is also investing in biofuels technologies that provide additional revenue opportunities for farmers.
OCJ: DuPont Pioneer is also working on a new Ohio research facility. What is the latest on that facility and how will it benefit Ohio agriculture?
John: The Urbana, Ohio, research program will work in three project areas. One focus area is managing the current and expanding early-stage field research locations, while two other teams will be responsible for managing more than 60 corn and 40 soybean IMPACT plots (Intensively Managed Product Advancement, Characterization and Training). IMPACT plots are located across the state and provide local data, giving researchers the opportunity to test products specific to the area. This local approach allows Pioneer to place the right product on the right acre to maximize farmer productivity.
OCJ: You were recently in Cincinnati for an international meeting for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America. In part, the event was to connect with young people interested in careers in crop science. What are the key areas of potential career opportunities you discussed?
John: Our interest in active recruiting is based on the doubling of our research investment and workforce over the past five years and an expectation that similar growth will occur in the next five years. During the conference, I had further opportunity to reach out to talented university students from across the country and around the globe. Job opportunities in our business are widespread, ranging from positions to support our business and sales operations to high technical research positions in plant breeding and biotechnology. There also are job opportunities in new areas that support our research efforts including bioinformatics and regulatory science. Our research business and research growth will continue both in the USA and abroad.
OCJ: How are young researchers responding to these opportunities in agriculture? Are there enough qualified young professional out there to fill the available jobs?
John: DuPont Pioneer is fortunate to be considered one of the best places to work as a scientist, and we have been successful in recruiting some of the most talented individuals from around the world to lead our team into the future. I have had wonderful opportunities to discuss career opportunities in agriculture with hundreds of students as I have visited numerous universities over the past two years. I also am involved in numerous organizations that are focused on encouraging students to pursue careers in agriculture, including the Council for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce (CSAW). We still have work ahead, but several universities are reporting recent enrollment increases in their ag-related science programs. I think that this is fueled by a combination of factors, including increased focus on the challenges of feeding a global population, and the fact that agricultural research is on the leading edge of technological innovation.
OCJ: What were other highlights at the international meeting?
John: The theme of this year’s conference was “Visions for a Sustainable Planet.” Clearly, scientific presentations of the conference are targeted towards research that will help us improve agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner. It’s a great conference that brings together researchers from a broad range of agricultural disciplines.
OCJ: From your broad perspective, how has today’s advanced crop technology handled the very challenging growing conditions around the country this season?
John: The year was clearly defined by drought issues, and I believe that our technology advancements clearly provided growers with opportunities to improve productivity in the face of this challenge. Growers should keep in mind that this year’s growing conditions are not necessarily indicative of those that they will face in 2013. As they make product selection decisions, they should use multi-year experience and select those products that have provided consistent performance across variable environmental conditions.
OCJ: What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job?
John: I truly enjoy having the opportunity to represent our world-class global research team of more than 4,000 employees. I also enjoy having the opportunity to meet and work one-on-one with farmer-customers around the globe, attempting to understand their unique challenges and how our research can help improve their productivity. Through my extensive travel around the world, I have developed a unique global perspective of agricultural challenges and opportunities. I also have enjoyed learning about global cultures that make each region unique.
OCJ: What are the greatest challenges of the seed industry moving forward?
John: Perhaps the greatest challenge remains global acceptance and regulatory hurdles associated with biotechnology traits, which are key components of our plan to continue productivity gains.