Ahead of the upcoming panel discussions at Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week, Gustavo Palerosi Carneiro, Senior Vice President at BASF for Agricultural Solutions in Asia Pacific, and Francois Scheffler, Senior Vice President at BASF for Human Nutrition, share insights about the company’s vision for a more sustainable food production and supply chain, and how BASF is innovating to meet the growing needs of consumers while protecting the health of people and the planet.
First off, for people who aren’t too familiar with BASF, what exactly is BASF’s involvement in the food space?
Gustavo: BASF is the world’s leading chemical company. And chemistry is an enabler for society to supply safe, nutritious and affordable food. Global concerns about the environment, our growing world population and health are driving BASF to find new and safe ways to feed ourselves. To this end, our agricultural solutions business works closely with farmers around the world to provide them with crop protection products, seeds, and other solutions that improve plant and soil health in order to maximise farm yields in a sustainable manner.
Francois: In the human health and nutrition space, we provide ingredients such as vitamins, plant sterols, omega-3 fatty acids and human milk oligosaccharides, to supplement dietary deficiencies. Ideally, we all eat a well-balanced diet of mostly fresh food that provides all the essential vitamins and minerals our body requires. However, this isn’t always possible for a variety of reasons. For example, aging affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, or someone may simply not consume enough of the nutrients he or she requires at their stage of life. This is where we plug the nutrition gap.
Beyond agriculture and human nutrition, BASF’s innovations are seen in many areas of the food ecosystem – such as improved animal nutrition for livestock, and biodegradable plastics used in both food packaging and agricultural mulch and greenhouse films.
Gustavo: Going forward, BASF is optimistic that chemistry will continue to play a strong role in helping society tackle some of its most pressing challenges. For example, how do we get rid of pests in our produce without affecting water supply? How do we increase the nutritional content of food to prevent malnutrition? A few years back, we formalised this ambition in our corporate purpose: ‘we create chemistry for a sustainable future’.
It’s clear BASF is focused on sustainability. When it comes to how food is grown and consumed, where is the biggest opportunity for BASF to have an impact?
Francois: People often talk about whether society will be able to produce enough calories to feed the world’s growing population. I don’t think this is the right question. Instead, we should be asking how we can deliver the right quality of nutrition for everyone. We need to realise that food high in calories may be devoid of nutrition, and nutrition gaps exist when we don’t get enough nutrients out of calories. Unhealthy diets and poor nutrition are among the top risk factors for non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. This is the first opportunity from a nutrition standpoint – and our portfolio of health ingredients is intended to narrow these deficiencies.
The second opportunity is continuing our efforts in food fortification to tackle malnutrition. We work with multiple stakeholders in more than 40 countries to fortify staple foods such as oil, flour, and sugar to improve micronutrients deficiencies. For example, we fortify flour with vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency affects an estimated 250 million preschool children and is a leading cause of preventable blindness , especially in Asia.
Gustavo: More and more consumers around the world are taking interest in how their food is produced. Society wants food that they can trust to be healthy and nutritious, and they’re also concerned about the imprint that food production leaves on the environment. We also want to minimise food waste along the value chain. As one of the leading agricultural solutions providers in the world, BASF can play a significant role in helping farmers grow more food using less land and inputs such as water, labour, fertiliser and pesticides.
For us, we see a lot of potential in digital farming – which is why we are investing in our xarvio™ digital farming platform. Another area is new seed varieties – for example hybrid wheat, where we believe we can help growers boost yields. Soil health is another important topic. And there’s still lots of opportunity for developing safer chemical and biological crop protection solutions for controlling pests, weeds and disease.
How would you characterise the Asian market, and what is your innovation strategy for Asia when it comes to food and agriculture?
Gustavo: More than half the world’s population lives in Asia, but the region only has one-third of the planet’s arable land. Farmers in the region face different challenges than their Western counterparts and here, we see a big need for training and technical support beyond just technology itself. Hence, are focused on developing solutions that fit the local context. For Asia, this means crops like rice, fruits and vegetables – and technology that works for smallholder farmers. Not least important is our attention to conserving land and the environment for future generations. Without good quality farm land, we won’t be able to produce enough food.
Francois: Consumers in Asia have a deep relationship with food – with culture, traditions and identity reflected in the diversity of flavours in the region. But as Asia has modernised and the pace of life has quickened, traditional diets are shifting and people are eating more processed foods that are higher in sugar and sodium. Addressing the health implications of this shift is a major challenge. Education and research about consuming the right nutrients at different stages of life and supplementing deficiencies is an ongoing effort.
One example is our Nutrition Asia Research Grant. It’s a platform that we launched in 2012, working with academics and researchers to advance scientific research for the most pressing and relevant health concerns for consumers in Asia – such as cardiovascular diseases, immunity or physical mobility.
Digestive health is another area of potential growth. Asia accounts for close to 25% of the digestive health support segment . There is growing awareness of the role fibers and prebiotics play in digestive health. Most recently, we introduced 2’-FL, which is a human milk oligosaccharide (HMO) to support digestive health and this is an exciting space we’re entering.
Gustavo: Another thing about Asia is the speed of innovation. The region is at the frontier of digital technology relative to their global peers. Even in relatively less well-to-do markets such as Cambodia or Nepal, digitalisation is accelerating. Businesses and consumers welcome technology to access information. For example, we’ve pioneered new e-commerce business models with companies in China. But even still, it can be challenging to keep up with the local market demands. So increasingly we are looking to partner with other local companies and institutions to better tailor our innovation and accelerate our journey to the market.
You mentioned collaboration with other companies. Can you give us some examples?
Gustavo: We actively collaborate with other companies – both large and small. On the agriculture front, one exciting collaboration is our partnership with Bosch on precision sprayer technology, which will help farmers apply crop protection products to their fields in a targeted fashion. We are also working with ULink AgriTech, a start-up in India, to integrate BASF’s xarvio™ scouting tool into their AgroStar platform. This integration will connect farmers to experts who recommend appropriate solutions and products. Finally, we have been working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to help commercialise herbicide-tolerant rice varieties in Asia. This partnership has a lot of potential to reduce the amounts of water and labour required as well as lower the greenhouse gas emissions from conventional rice farming.
BASF maintains a strong presence in Singapore – including the global headquarters for its human nutrition business and the Asia Pacific headquarters for its agricultural solutions business. What key advantages does Singapore provide BASF you look to help shape the future of food?
Francois: Singapore is great hub for anyone working on agriculture, food and nutrition. The infrastructure is business friendly and many of our global customers also have their regional headquarters based here. We receive good support from the Economic Development Board and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). In addition, the high quality of life that Singapore offers attracts a global talent pool which makes it a perfect place to collaborate on world-class innovation.
Francois Scheffler, Senior Vice President at BASF for Global Human Nutrition will join the panel: ‘Food as Medicine: Delivering Functional Foods for Infant Nutrition and Senior Wellness’ on Friday November 21 at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week.