Last week I had the chance to meet with several BASF executives at the company’s headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The company was holding a media summit focused on ag sustainability and unveiled a new global survey of consumer attitudes toward farmers.
It was my good fortune to have a few minutes with Markus Heldt, president at the company’s crop protection division. Heldt truly has a global perspective on agriculture, having spent years working in Europe, Brazil and North America. There’s no doubt who he believes will be the next dominant player in world agriculture.
“In ten years, Brazil will be feeding the world, along with Argentina,” he told me. “Of course, the U.S. will remain a powerhouse in agriculture. but with limits to expand area. It’s all driven by productivity, yield and quality.”
China has already put Brazil on its radar, adds Heldt (left). The Chinese government is taking steps now to bring Brazil closer through investments and trade agreements. But that’s no threat.
“As long as there is demand in China someone has to meet that demand -- it can’t just be the U.S.,” he says. “To me, it’s a logical step; an extended workbench for china to get commodities to meet their growing demand.”
In fact, Heldt is bullish that world demand will continue to grow. And unless there is an unforeseen black swan-like event, China will remain the driver of that demand for the next decade. “For the next 10-plus years you will see 7 to 10% growth in China,” he says. “I’m not sure there’s anything imaginable that can change the hunger of the Chinese population.”
What threatens your business? Weather has played a role, especially in the Midwest the past two years. Even so, Heldt believes the technology that exists today gives farmers a much better chance to produce food needed for a hungry planet. Other threats include protectionism, especially if economies fail and governments put up trade barriers.
Competition from Brazil is a challenge but U.S. farmers are competitive and efficient, he adds. “There’s plenty of space for both of those ag superpowers to exist together without killing each other.”
After talking to Heldt, it dawned on me that maybe those of us in the U.S. and Europe have become too skeptical about innovation. We focus on the little negatives and let the fear of new technology, such as biotech crops, get the best of us. You wouldn’t see such attitudes in places overwhelmed by poverty.
We have ample food and plenty of time to fret about how it’s produced.
“Sitting at our own table, it’s a tough spot to convince people to be less critical of new innovations,” he says. “It has to start at school, as early as kindergarten. But often the teachers are not interested in facts and science, and that makes it difficult on the kids.”