One of the best parts of my jobs is that I get to travel around and hang out with people who are a lot smarter than I am.
To that end, I spent a few days last week in Chicago with the team at BASF for its biannual Agriculture Media Summit. Every two years, the company brings together a bunch of reporters who cover on potatoes, corn, soybeans and the like, and puts them in a room with its top researchers and executives to showcase the latest projects and other cool stuff they’re working on.
This year, the theme was sustainability, and how farmers all around the world are going to need to feed about nine billion mouths by 2050 using pretty much the same amount of land they have now (and likely a lot less water).
While it has little to do with growing grass or trees, the research does shine a light onto some pretty cool stuff that the company is up to. Here’s a quick round-up of the top three highlights.
AgBalance sustainability measurement too
BASF has developed a tool to help bring some tangible numbers to the question of how sustainable a business or operation is.
It’s AgBalance system, which was developed 15 years ago in the automotive coatings business, examines a couple hundred data points (like soil quality, nutrient balance, biodiversity, rates of worker pay, commodity prices, etc.) to measure sustainability.
The same model has been applied in more than 400 other industries including, in late 2011, agriculture, where it calculated a 40 percent increase in the sustainability of Iowa corn production during a 10 year period.
Jan Buberl, head of the company’s specialty products department, says the T&O market can expect a similar tool in about two years.
Canola oil case study
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. BASF sees an opportunity in helping canola farmers produce these heart-healthy oils, which can then be used to fortify other foods.
The only problem is that canola oil doesn’t contain those chemicals. So the BASF R&D team was able to identify and move genes that do produce these oils into canola seed. In the fall of last year, BASF partnered with Cargill to bring these genetically modified seeds to market by 2020.
Investment in new business
Much of what chemical companies bring to market is, well, chemistry. Through the discovery of new active ingredients, formulations and other technologies, they try to stay ahead of new diseases, pests and other environmental factors.
But that takes money and people. Worldwide, 10,000 BASF employees work in R&D, and the company spends 23 of its annual research budget on new businesses and new segments it’s not already active in.
Last year, BASF posted global revenue of €73.5 billion. By 2020, the company plans to bring in €115 billion, and says a quarter of that will come from products and services that are less than 10 years old.