Johan Cardoen’s hopes for the future of agriculture

August 23, 2023 Article BioVox

Flanders is home to one of the world’s most innovative agrifood clusters, and Johan Cardoen has been a central figure in that ecosystem for over three decades. From leading positions in agtech startups to the Managing Director of VIB, Cardoen has run the gamut of Flemish biotech. Interested in his decades of firsthand experience in the sector, we spoke with Cardoen about his views on the past, present, and future of sustainable agriculture.

By Amy LeBlanc. Header image: Johan Cardoen.

Q: For those who don’t know you, can you tell us a bit about your career to date?

Johan Cardoen: “I’m a scientist by training and began my career in 1988 at the first biotech company in Belgium, Plant Genetic Systems (‘PGS’). After the acquisition of PGS in 1996, I stayed 3 years with the acquiring company being responsible for technology alliances and acquisition. When Aventis was formed as a result from the ongoing industry consolidation, I joined CropDesign (the second VIB startup focused on seed yield improvement) in 1999 as VP Business Development, where in 2004 I became CEO. In 2006 we ran a dual track (IPO/trade sale) which led to the acquisition of CropDesign by BASF, where I stayed until I joined VIB in 2012. From 2008 until 2012 I became Chairman of the biotech network organization flanders.bio and I was Independent Board Member of argenx (one of Belgium’s brightest biotech stars). Then, in June 2012, I joined biotech institute VIB as Managing Director, heading the Innovation and Business team. I retired from that position in 2020 and am currently a board member of several prominent biotech companies (including Biotalys, Protealis, and Aphea.Bio).”

Q: What are some of the most inspiring agricultural advances you’ve seen in that time?

Johan Cardoen: “The first wave of innovation which I personally witnessed was the major impact of gene technologies in the 80s. Until then, plant breeding was basically a numbers game: to create genetic diversity, breeders were selecting and combining lines by eye. But with the advent of molecular breeding – DNA-based tools used in combination with traditional breeding techniques – you could suddenly select and follow traits throughout breeding cycles, thereby making more direct and significant advancements. This was a major step forward. Of course, in the 80s we also saw a breakthrough in genetically modified crops, which unfortunately has not really led to benefits for farmers and consumers in Europe, due to European regulations. But these GM technologies have had a major impact outside of Europe, and on the evolution of the industry as a whole by making crops less dependent on insecticides and improving disease resistance and yields.

“Combined with traditional plant breeding techniques, these gene technologies have rapidly accelerated our ability to create crops that are more resilient to the challenges of our age, like climate change and feeding a growing world population.”

“We saw further progress in the late 90s, with the rise of functional genomics in both agriculture and therapeutics. Through advancements in sequencing technologies, we were able to not only identify genes, but also the function of both genes and proteins. It paved the way to high-throughput phenotypic screening in crops, which in turn has enabled the rapid identification of desirable properties like nitrogen efficiency and drought tolerance. Then in the 2010s, the rise of new breeding technologies such as modern gene editing tools like CRISPR gave us the ability to induce or correct mutations leading to very precise trait improvement. Combined with traditional plant breeding techniques, these gene technologies have rapidly accelerated our ability to develop crops that are more resilient to the challenges of our age, like climate change and feeding a growing world population.”

Q: What are some of the most recent biotech breakthroughs that give you hope for the future?

Johan Cardoen: “Over the last decade, we have seen the rise of precision agriculture, with companies using technology like drones and AI for precision application of things like irrigation, pesticides, and rational fertilizer use, only administering them when they’re needed. We’re also seen a growing trend towards biological crop protection solutions exploiting crop and soil microbiomes. By identifying beneficial microbes, companies like our own Aphea.Bio can create probiotic products for plants – biopesticides for protection, and biostimulants to promote growth. This shift from chemical-based to biological crop protection is driven by the move towards more sustainable agriculture and the pressure from regulators and consumers to reduce the use of agrochemical products. I’m a firm believer that, with the advancements which have been made, there will be biologicals on the market in the coming years which will really be able to compete with currently used agrichemicals in terms of efficiency. Evoca, the protein-based biofungicide developed by Biotalys is a perfect example of a biological with an ‘at par activity’ compared to an agrochemical fungicide.

“The evolution we’re seeing in agriculture is towards more efficient and precise innovation, as well as cheaper and safer food.”

“This reflects the general trends of the field. The evolution we’re seeing in agriculture is towards more efficient and precise innovation, as well as cheaper and safer food. We can see this too in the increasing interest from impact investors actively on the lookout for ag innovations which can lead to improved sustainability and better food systems.”

Q: A lot of progress is being made; what are some of the remaining hurdles for sustainable agriculture?

Johan Cardoen: “The basis for any further progress lies in innovative research, which is why institutions like VIB and biotech incubators like biotope by VIB are so important. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, many think that agriculture is a conservative industry in terms of innovation. Having worked for so many years in this industry, I can bear witness to the fact that it is just the opposite: it’s a very innovation-driven industry. If you visit a mainstream breeding company today, you would be amazed how innovative they are in applying state-of-the-art technologies. Innovative startups are highly dependent on financing and the availability of venture capital which has been tempered in the past two years by a challenging global financial environment. If that chill investment climate continues, it will hamper the progress of new innovations. Solid and sustainable financing is essential to ensuring that agriculture innovations make it to the grower or the consumer.

“Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, many think that agriculture is a conservative industry in terms of innovation. Having worked for so many years in this industry, I can bear witness to the fact that it is just the opposite: it’s a very innovation-driven industry.”

“Outdated regulations are another barrier to progress. The European farming community, for example, will continue to miss out on the opportunities of new breeding technologies such as gene editing if the EU doesn’t revisit and adapt their current position. These are technologies which everyone would like to embrace, particularly in terms of improved sustainability. But if the regulatory hurdles continue to create a huge financial liability for smaller breeding companies, then only the larger multinationals will really be able to reap the benefits. That would really be a shame.

“An additional feature of modern agriculture is that it has become a very consolidated industry. In the late 80s and early 90s, there were easily twenty major ag companies in the world, but today there are only about five. If you’re a small company, this can present a problem, because you’ll likely need to partner with one of them and there are many competitors knocking on the same door. But at the same time, those major players are scouting for safer and more sustainable solutions, to differentiate themselves from the other big companies. This creates interesting dynamics in the ag space and is a major driver of innovation.”

Q: How crucial is sustainability really for the agricultural industry ?

Johan Cardoen: “Profitability is of course an important corporate objective for many companies, but luckily, sustainability goals are also increasingly vital objectives. We’ve seen a positive evolution on this front, particularly over the past ten years, thanks primarily to pressure applied by stakeholders like the public. Conscious consumers are checking their supermarket products to see where they’re coming from, and they care about their ecological footprint and how their food is produced. Profit and progress aren’t at odds; they are hand in hand.

“Contrary to public perception, there are tremendous advances being made in agriculture, and people’s continued push for more sustainable practices is transforming the industry year by year.”

“I’m very pleased to see this trend, because it should also lead to a better image of the industry. Regretfully, farmers are currently viewed as quite traditional people, which I think is the cause of quite a bit of misunderstanding on both sides. Contrary to public perception, there are tremendous advances being made in agriculture, and people’s continued push for more sustainable practices is transforming the industry year by year.”

Q: What are your hopes for the future of agriculture?

Johan Cardoen: “Ideally, I hope that we will soon be able to reap the benefits of all of the sustainability investments and developments currently ongoing. We’re not there yet but, perhaps within the next ten to twenty years, these will lead to less pressure on the planet and our natural resources and better health for consumers. And I wish for this to be the case not only for the Western world, but for innovations to reach farmers and consumers in Africa, Asia, and South America, where the impact on both people and environment will be enormous. This is a global responsibility, and there is still quite a bit of work to be done.

“Another thing I’d like to see is improved food security. With the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, many people have suddenly realized just how dependent we all are on international food supply chains. Agriculture is a global business, and we need geopolitical stability to ensure that people can access the food they need at a reasonable price.”

Q: You recently published a book ‘Biotech in Vlaanderen: een straf verhaal’ co-authored with Jo Bury and Dirk Reyn. What are some of the take-home messages of that book relating to agriculture?

Johan Cardoen: “First of all, the book examines the evolution in Flanders as a whole, starting from the two biotech companies we had in the 80s to the vibrant innovative ecosystem we have today. This significant growth has been made possible thanks to many different people and factors. It also outlines the impact our local ecosystem had on a global scale. For example, we were able to identify seventeen drugs based on research performed in Flanders, which today help treat more than two million patients globally. So, in addition to the immediate economic importance, the sector here has a positive societal impact on the lives of many people around the world. This was a bit of an eye opener for me, and further underpins that sometimes we are too modest in Flanders about what we have achieved.

“As an ag innovation hub, Flanders is one of the top five clusters in the world, and the number one in Europe.”

“Similarly, although Flanders isn’t a particularly large agricultural region on the global scale, it does have an outsized impact on the industry. Much of the local expertise builds upon the legacy formed many years ago by Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell. Along with many other people, they put Flanders on the global map as a fertile breeding ground for agriculture innovation. As an ag innovation hub, Flanders is one of the top five clusters in the world, and the number one in Europe. And since agriculture is a global business, the impact of that research can be felt far and wide. We should nurture and cherish that knowledge, and not be too shy to share our achievements with the rest of the world.”

‘Biotech in Vlaanderen: een straf verhaal’ by Jo Bury, Johan Cardoen, and Dirk Reyn is out now in Dutch. English translation to be published in September 2023.


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