innovationQ&A: Rachel Binning

Global regulatory portfolio lead soybeans, Corteva Agriscience

Tiny seeds link Iowa’s past to the cutting-edge work at Corteva AgriScience, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont. The story began in the 1920s when Henry A. Wallace started Hi-Bred Corn Co., later known as Pioneer Hi-Bred, working on seed genetics. In the late 1990s, Dow would come to own Pioneer Hi-Bred; Dow and DuPont would merge, and Corteva AgriScience would be one of three divisions to come from that merger. Nearly a hundred years after Wallace’s work, innovations still center on seeds. Rachel Binning, the global regulatory portfolio lead – soybeans, plays a role in that innovation and getting those seed innovations into farmers’ hands. Binning holds an undergraduate degree in biology, and a master’s and Ph.D. in entomology from Iowa State University. She shares her experiences as a research scientist and her observations on innovation here.

How do you define innovation?

Developing a transformational solution to a challenge. It’s exciting and there are a lot of bad ideas and do-overs. The best innovations anticipate future challenges and are unexpected and disruptive.

What was your first significant innovation, invention or process that you were a part of?

A few years after I started working at DuPont Pioneer, now Corteva Agriscience, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, I was assigned to a research project evaluating a new insect control corn product. Corn with the ability to control insects was relatively new at the time, but we were already thinking about how to slow down the speed at which insects, like corn rootworm, developed resistance.

As the product progressed through testing, the team developed some innovative ideas to simplify resistance management. Our solution was the first blended refuge product, which is now an industry standard. It was the most frustrating, but also exciting and rewarding project I’ve worked on in my 17 years in agriculture.

What is a key trend, or what are key trends, in scientific research?

We are tasked with the challenge to produce more food in less space, while reducing the environmental footprint in a changing climate. Researchers are working to address this challenge in a multitude of ways. Artificial intelligence, crop genome editing and seed applied technology are a few of the research trends that are transforming agriculture.

What are some of the ways an organization, such as Corteva Agriscience, can help cultivate a culture of innovation?

To predict and solve for future challenges, we must collaborate with others and focus on the customer. I’m proud of the values Corteva Agriscience has put in place around understanding our customer, collaboration and open innovation.

What is the state of Iowa’s biggest challenge when it comes to innovation in your area?

As with other businesses in Iowa, attracting and retaining talent are a challenge in the ag space. Technology is an integral part of farms and agribusinesses today, but the coasts are generally assumed to be the hubs for technology innovation. Rural stereotypes and climate also play a role in where people choose to live and look for work. I am optimistic that this will get better for the state, thanks in part to the efforts to update Iowa’s agriculture image by organizations such as the Cultivation Corridor. Increasing acceptability of working remotely will also work in Iowa’s favor.

What are two or three of the most exciting areas that you are working on?

At Corteva Agriscience, we have an exceptional pipeline of seed and chemistry products. I get to shepherd our soybean biotech seed products through the global regulatory system, which is the last big step in a decade-long process before farmers can plant them. It’s exciting because of the great value these products will bring to our customers and the company, but the length of the regulatory process can be daunting.

This is my first year volunteering with CommonGround Iowa, an organization of women who are dedicated to connecting farmers with consumers and having real conversations about where our food comes from. I went to their Ladies Night Out last fall. I would recommend that experience to anyone who wants to visit a farm or is curious about food production.

“We need elected officials and other stakeholders to be engaged with farmers and innovators and advocate globally for a predictable, science-based system for Iowa agriculture products.” 

What is needed to make it easier for innovations or scientific discoveries to reach consumers or those who would benefit from it?

Many agriculture technologies require authorizations from several countries before they can be sold to farmers. The current complexity and politicization of parts of the global regulatory system create hurdles, especially for entrepreneurs and small companies. We need elected officials and other stakeholders to be engaged with farmers and innovators and advocate globally for a predictable, science-based system for Iowa agriculture products.

What areas of education or expertise are needed in your field?

You don’t need to be a farmer to work in agribusiness. Many of the people I work with at Corteva Agriscience are farmers, but I am not. I was hired with a Master of Science in entomology and got my Ph.D. while I worked. A science background is helpful, and curiosity, teamwork, communication and grit are all skills that have served me well in this field. A willingness to work hard and literally get dirty will go a long way in the agriculture industry.

What is the most pressing challenge in your field that innovation could meet?

I believe one reason some regulatory policies have favored precaution is in response to perceived consumer distrust of agriculture technology. We need a social innovation that will facilitate an appropriate level of transparency and a return to civil dialogue. Transformational technologies are not easily explained or understood via sound bites and headlines on social media. People tend to distrust what they don’t understand. How do we communicate complex subjects to a population with an inherently short attention span?

What is your top goal in innovation for this year?

It feels like this year the innovation is the new company. We’re bringing together three companies to form one pure-play agriculture company. My goal for the year as part of this change is to consider consumer needs and engage in more open dialogue about agriculture. I’m also looking forward to learning more about the new technologies under development at Corteva Agriscience and elsewhere. Agriculture today is truly an innovative space to work in.