Soils Preservation

Open discussion with Bayer Crop Science

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Soils Preservation

Open discussion with Bayer Crop Science

Agriculture : What solutions to help preserve the soils?

With Dr. Simon Maechling, Innovation Manager at Bayer Crop Science

January 31st, 2022

Since the 18th century, exponential population growth and the related demand for food have led to the development of agricultural practices that have negative impacts on the environment and people. The use of chemical enhancers, tilling, large-scale exploitations and other high-intensity agricultural practices affect the soil’s fertility and its ability to capture carbon, maintain its biodiversity and prevent water contamination and eutrophication which have repercussions on human health.

During this session with Dr Simon Maechling, Innovation Manager at Bayer Crop Science, we will exchange on the innovation challenges and opportunities and the existing solutions developed by Bayer Crop Science and innovative startups to address the issues discussed above such as carbon sequestration solutions with added value for farmers, how to limit the environmental and health impact of chemicals, and digital solutions to support the protection of biodiversity.


Open discussion

Could you tell us a bit more about your role at the Life Hub in Lyon?

I’m an innovation manager and my role is to identify new technologies and to build partnerships for our R&D department at Bayer Crop science. We work a lot with startups, with universities, with other key players in AgTech helping them grow, finding the best fit and looking for new technologies to advance Agriculture and to advance the R&D pipeline. I work from our Bayer Life Hub which is really an open door to our research centre for disease control in Lyon. 

Could you explain why soil is an important topic in Agriculture?

Soil is a fundamental factor to the question on how to produce food for a growing population. Maybe, just to break it down there are three main things we need to grow food: we need to have some seeds or some genetics, we need to have some space to grow the food which is generally soil, and then we need to have inputs, the food for the plant which comes from the soil it comes or other inputs including fertilizers like manure or other fertilizers as well. The soil is what keeps everything together. Healthy soil means healthy crops. 

Farmers over the years have learned how to keep soils healthy by doing different things and today I think soil is gaining even more importance when we talk about carbon and carbon capture. It’s a sink of carbon where carbon can be stored during the crop-growing cycle. Soil is key to helping us with countering the potential effects of climate change and capturing carbon into the soil, which is something a lot of startups are trying to do.  

Could you give us your definition of Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture, first of all, is not new. It’s been around for hundreds of years. I’ve researched this topic and there are a number of definitions out there; I don’t think that one definition is better or worse than the other. For me, it means making sure that we try to regenerate microorganisms, bacteria, and biodiversity in the soil; making sure that we try to capture carbon in the soil and making sure that we’re not depleting nutrients in the soil whilst we’re growing crops. It’s about keeping the soil healthy amongst many other things.  

What does becoming more Regenerative require?

The single most important thing that we need to consider when it comes to transitioning towards more regenerative agriculture is tilling. Tilling aims at eliminating weeds and at preparing the soil to have an aerated structure to allow the planting of seeds. When we come to regenerative agriculture the first and easiest thing to do in that direction is to stop tilling. It has many positive effects for the farmer and it has many negative effects. I’ll just label the most obvious one: soil erosion. If I turn my soil and if there’s a heavy rainfall afterwards some wind then I will suffer from soil erosion as a farmer, meaning that the top layer of soil, which is where a lot of the nutrients sit, potentially gets washed away. That’s not something we want and it’s certainly not something which is included in the approach of regenerative agriculture. 

What keeps you up at night?

There are two things which keep me awake at night. The first one is falling yields potentially due to climate change. This is really important as we’re in a growing population we need to produce more 

calories, more proteins and climate change is one thing which is going to change our approach to growing the number of calories.  

The second is plants needing to become more adapted to things like soils with increased salinity or salt levels. They need to become more adapted to environments where temperatures are potentially slightly higher and they need to become more adapted to different pests or diseases perhaps we haven’t seen before. 


Do you think that changing operations at the farm level to capture more CO2 and to limit emissions is possible?

There are two main things that I consider to limit carbon release, so effectively capturing more carbon. The first one is moving to no-till agriculture at least in the short term. That’s the way which I can increase carbon storage in the ground. The second one is slightly more complex, it’s how can companies like Bayer Crop Science innovate and support farmers to reduce their emissions footprint whilst maintaining their yields.  

What is missing according to you to develop more carbon farming?

There are two things for me that are missing. On the one side there is the knowledge and understanding of the farmers. There are some regulations in place but they could be clearer to understand and I think for part of that farmers are not quite understanding what’s happening. The second thing is a real value generation for the farmer to make sure that when they embark on these practices, there is a remuneration at the end for them. Creating value will help the transition that we’re going through in agriculture creating value from carbon capture and I want to give one or two concrete examples of initiatives.  The first is the Climate Agricultural Alliance which have grouped together a number of startups all working in the carbon farming area. Startups have joined and formed this alliance with the purpose of increasing the visibility of the technologies that are available in the sector of carbon farming and providing information and material to the farmers, to the customers, to the General Public on what solutions exist and how they could be implemented. I’ll just call out some startups: Rize Ag and Carbon Farmers, they do a fantastic job and they are incubated today at the Shake-up Factory located within Station F in Paris.  

How can Carbon be measured?

I’ll call this the Holy Grail today and so if we’re discussing increasing carbon in the soil there are two really important things which need to be done. I need to know how much I have today and I need to know how much I have tomorrow, next month, next year in order to measure that delta (editor’s note: discrepancy). Today the measurements are made through soil sampling on randomized grids and an average is taken and it’s put into some models to determine the amount of carbon that is across the area of land that we’re analysing. It takes time to collect, prepare, send and analyse the samples. There are some technologies coming where we could do that more remotely through sensors either embedded in the field or parts of the field, through sensors elevated above a field and the ones which I think are the most interesting is being able to use satellite imagery to determine for example moisture content of the soil and then to find and understand the relationship between moisture content and carbon content to be able to do that completely remotely. The advantage with satellite data is that you can cover a lot of ground with a lot of pictures very quickly and more efficiently than having sensors based in the soil. 

What's the impact in the end for the farmers?

Bayer and other teams are still working on what is that actual value generated for capturing more carbon: through carbon credits and through other mechanisms to release money and I believe carbon Farmers have some specific numbers on how much they can generate for farmers and we’re in a phase where scaling that up in agriculture is going to be one of the major priorities over the coming years.  

What's the status of technologies such as sensors, data, robotics, and drones? Are these things available to Farmers?

I’ll just describe the types of digital technologies that we have in farming today. I’d categorize these very broadly into ground, air and sky. Ground would be ground sensors, humidity, carbon measurements, and nutrient measurements for example. Air would be drones, and then Sky would be mainly satellites. These are the three big categories of digital technologies. I think there is a lot of potential in these Technologies to really generate value. I think that value will come when the models have been trained and are able to predict something which is going to happen in order to lead to a behavioural change from the farmer. I’ll give one concrete example of disease prediction. If we’re able to predict when a certain disease will come into a vineyard in France, then it will help the farmer make a behavioural change leading them to choose when to spray for example to protect their yield of grapes for wine and I think that’s going to be when the true value for these technologies gets unlocked.  

There is a loss of biodiversity in soils, what are the solutions to measure it?

One of the pillars of regenerative agriculture is also helping increase the biodiversity in the soil: biodiversity of microbes, bacteria, plants, fungi… When we want to move to being able to increase something as with carbon we need to be able to measure it: where are we today and how are we plus one month, plus one year? This is going to be absolutely key to farmers adopting new technologies to be able to increase their biodiversity and I could even imagine a world in the future where the farmer will be remunerated for having more biodiversity in his fields. There’s one technology for me which is standing out at the moment to be able to measure that and it’s called environmental DNA or EDNA. It enables, from a sample of water or a sample of soil, to extract the DNA that is in the soil from mammals that have passed and left faeces or from bacteria or fungi microorganisms that are already present in the soil and classify which species are there at a high level of precision. The big drawback today is the quantification part that is still not as advanced as it needs to be.  I’m sure that we will get there with quantification because it would be absolutely amazing to say you know at a certain point in time this is my biodiversity in my field I can then measure once I know my baseline which activities are increasing or decreasing that biodiversity. The other advantage of measuring this is really we can then begin to Target which type of biodiversity we want to increase or improve in the field depending on what outcome we want to have at the end of the season.  

I’m happy to name a couple of startups working in the area to give a concrete example: one is nature metrics in the UK and the other would be Argaly in France.  

What's the impact of Digital Technologies for you at Bayer Crop Science?

It requires a new way of approaching the field as a data source. I’m going to talk about big data in agriculture with all of this data that we can generate from satellites, from drones, from sensors in the field, from technologies like carbon or nutrient measurements, even environmental DNA. All of this data generation is a mindset change. Being able to analyse, understand and being able to predict from all of this data is going to be really ground-breaking and really key for the future. For that, a digital platform is needed to store the data and be able to use it at farm level. In the US and in South America, Bayer has a platform called Field View and this is the beginning of that holistic data integration into farm level operations.  

When you have a lot of data, we always ask the question of how it is used, how it is shared and what value we can get from this data.

One of the things that we’ve been working on at Bayer Crop Science over the last five or six years is a totally new business model for the agriculture sector. Before I talk about the new business, let’s talk about old business models.  You already know today the business model of companies like Bayer Crop Science, BASF and Syngenta. We sell a jug of products and sell a bag of seeds. This approach is fundamentally changing with the association of data. The things that we’re doing at Bayer is moving to what we call outcomes-based pricing. Today we sell jugs of products and bags of seeds, tomorrow the idea is to sell a yield by using the data and the platforms available and by having predictions that can support the outcome. It should be possible in the future to say by following this practice, your yield will be 27 bushels of corn per acre or whatever that number turns out to be. The great thing about outcomes-based pricing is if the yield comes in above then there’s able to have a value share between the farmer and companies like Bayer, if it comes in below then there’s no value share but there’s a sort of guaranteed income for the farmer. The approach is able to integrate every type of farming you could imagine: regenerative farming, organic approaches, conventional approaches, any other approach where there’s data available.  

What value does Precision Agriculture brings

Precision agriculture is all about doing what is needed in the right place at the right time. Let me complement that with an example of fertilization in the field. By understanding the nutrient profile of soil, it’s possible to go through and to spray fertilizer just on the areas of soil which are lacking specific nutrients, it’s also possible through the same methodology to increase things like planting density in areas of the field that are more fertile than others. For whatever reason the whole objective is to increase yield, and precision agriculture can also be used to apply crop protection products. Herbicides are a classic example; we’re seeing a lot of startups in this area as well with specific spraying. When we have a systemic herbicide it’s able to spot spray on specific weeds and so you’re generating value by reducing application rates and you’re generating value by only using products where and when you need them.  

What's your vision as the leader of the future of agrochemicals?

It’s a topic where there’s a lot of polarization and strong opinions. We need to focus on the farmer, we need to focus on feeding the planet, and we need to transform the way we discover, which we develop small molecules for crop protection including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. We need to be even more sure of their safety, even more, sure of their environmental footprint, all without sacrificing yields and the health of the harvest. We’re approaching that in a very open way. We have a number of open Innovation programs around this and one of our holy Grails here is really around modes of action. We are really focusing our R&D on discovering and developing safer crop protection products with new modes of action. These new modes of action are really important because it means that we can break through any potential resistance, it means that we can be very selective to be sure that the mechanism of action is specific for the animal or the pest or the weed that we want to control.  These things take time, the average development time for a new crop protection product is 12 years and the costs are upwards of 350 million euros. 90% of that cost is spent to determine that the product is safe to the environment and safe to humans and other non-target species and so we’re working very hard on that. 

There are specific pathways in our target insects or targets diseases or target weeds which don’t occur in other species. So, roughly speaking, we know the society knows about 10% of all the pathways in a given organism and there’s 90% still left to be uncovered. One of the jobs that we’re doing in our research Labs is really to uncover the rest of the 90%. So, this is really what we’re targeting. I can’t name one in particular because I don’t know but it would be one where it’s specifically only found in that weed or in that interceptor in wheat or in soybean or in lepidoptera in corn where we can really be precise about the target inhibition and then about the control of that pest.  



Also, we can think outside the box and try to go where chemistry can’t go and talk about gene editing which is more and more developed so could you tell us a bit more about gene editing and also about the level of acceptance of this technology?

Gene editing is where we’re able to specifically change single base pairs of DNA in an organism. It’s a very precise technology. Changing one base pair can have tremendous effects or no effect at all on a certain property of that organism. It’s been used um today for example in agriculture to make tomatoes that contain more gamma-aminobutyric acid, it’s been used in order to increase protein quantity in certain legumes like chickpeas and we could use it also to increase oil production in certain crops. In terms of acceptance, I’m highly optimistic that it will be more accepted in Europe than other technologies and I’ll refer specifically to GMO Technologies. GMO technology in Europe is becoming more and more accepted after 30 years of safe use. The general perception of the public is becoming more positive towards GMO. In fact, yesterday the FSA (European Food Safety Council) gave permission for import-export of another GMO crop that will be allowed in the future to be traded in Europe. Coming back to Gene editing which was your question, it’s so much more precise than anything we’ve done in the past and the potential to make small improvements in yield or in temperature tolerance or soil or assault tolerance to plants is absolutely phenomenal. It should make the life of farmers easier whilst protecting the environment. 


Innovation Manager
Simon Maechling
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With >17 years’ experience in R&D, Simon plays a central role in fostering strategic partnerships around the globe and supporting programs of internal and external innovation to accelerate Bayer’s industry leading R&D pipeline.


He is a strong champion for both external and pre-competitive partnering as a driving force for innovation with 14 original research publication in peer reviewed journals and >40 patent applications

Working from the LifeHub Lyon in Lyon, France he is a strong promotor of open innovation and new technologies for agriculture. He is very active in supporting and mentoring startups to grow.


In his spare time he practices Double-bass, Tenor Saxophone and Baritone Saxophone and is active within the amateur music circuit in Lyon and the surrounding Rhone-Alpes region.



About Bayer 

Bayer AG is a German multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company and one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Headquartered in Leverkusen, Bayer’s areas of business include pharmaceuticals; consumer healthcare products, agricultural chemicals, seeds and biotechnology products.