In Conversation with BioAg Leaders A Candid Conversation between Roger Tripathi and Luca Bonini

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Luca Bonini, CEO, Hello Nature

Luca Bonini became CEO of HELLO NATURE (previously Italpollina) in 2001 and continues the legacy of the company’s founding values – quality, passion, innovation, and respect for nature.  His perspective on innovation comes from an uncommon commitment to research and the resulting new technologies for sustainable agriculture. A leader in the sector, HELLO NATURE® is the world’s largest producer of 100% vegetal-based biostimulants for use in agriculture.  Lucas has served as the President of the European Biostimulants Industry Council (EBIC) from 2018 to 2022.

RT: You moved back to Geneva from the US and are creating a global headquarters there. What motivated this decision?

LB: This has been a major step not only for myself and my family, but also for the group. We felt that now was the right time for Hello Nature to consolidate its structure and organization. Moving back to Europe is the first step to consolidating Hello Nature to build a structure that can be perceived by customers, suppliers, and all the stakeholders as a multinational entity.  In fact, over the last few years, we have worked harder to expand our reach in the market through several subsidiaries, and through industrial sites where we produce and manufacture our products. We felt it was the moment to pause, rethink the organization, and consolidate our work. The last 10 years have been like a marathon with a lot of sprints. Sometimes you need to rethink and reestablish yourself, think about the future and the next steps, and then move forward with full force. For Hello Nature, that time is now.

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RT: You are launching a second plant also in the US and have achieved that in a short period. That is fantastic. So, what is coming next on the innovation side after this consolidation?

LB: Science is very important for us. Everything that we develop follows some strict criteria. Products need to go through an intensive phase of testing and trials, not only in a greenhouse but in an open field. In the greenhouse, you can have the best conditions under a controlled environment while in an open field, everything gets more difficult and more complex, several factors interact, including the soil, the plant, the microbiome in the soil, and the weather, which can be very tricky sometimes and can destroy the crop completely. At Hello Nature, we have two different paths that we want to establish in the coming years. First, we will consolidate our product portfolio by eliminating some products to have a portfolio that is aligned with the current market needs. We have been developing a lot of formulas and products over the last year. Now we want to take them to the market aggressively. The other one is to invest heavily in what we believe will be the future of related products. We launched the bioaccumulation project a few months ago. With sustainability in people’s minds, synthetic products are the first ones to be substituted. For example, with the biophilia dates, we are trying to give an alternative to synthetic chelates that are present on the market today.

RT: You were the President of EBIC and are very sensitive to this segment. What was going on in Europe about these farmers’ protests, the Green Deal, and SUR (The Sustainable Use Regulation)?

LB: I am critical of what the Green Deal is today, at least how it has been developed. We all know that we need to be more green and more sustainable and need to use alternatives. Agriculture is part of the cause of climate change, but it needs to be a part of the solution, many times people forget the second part. Farmers have been struggling over the last few years. People do not perceive how hard it is to farm today. We have been through skyrocketing prices of raw materials, wars, pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and much more. Farmers are the last ring of the chain. They cannot decide the price of inputs like fertilizer, pesticide, or seeds but they must accept what is happening. Often, they do not have the power to sell their crop at the price they need. They are in a context that is exceedingly difficult to manage. I feel that the protests from the farmers are legitimate. Everything is exacerbated by the application of the Green Deal which is too ideological and does not look at solutions, instead imposing restrictions that are becoming a concern.

The Green Deal is the biggest risk today for Europe and the farmers. I am not against it. We can do a lot of things in Europe. We have more common things between European countries than differences. But we need to get out of ideology, put our feet on the ground, and be more practical on the future of both agriculture and the BioAg industry.

RT: In principle, there is nothing wrong with the Green Deal but its execution. They want to reduce chemical load by 2030, but where are the alternatives? Many companies are providing alternatives but cannot bring those to the market in time, given the five to seven years period to register a biopesticide. Secondly, Europe is going to disadvantage its own farmers. European farmers cannot use those products. But there is nothing in place to stop imports from other countries using these products. This will indirectly kill its own farmers’ business. We need to look at the practicality and the commercial aspects and make sure the alternatives are available.

LB:  I see a lot of differences between Europe and the United States in the approach, for example, on something like the Green Deal. We want to talk about solutions and be practical. Now is the high time to really think about the future. To realize all these nice concepts of the Green Deal we need solutions first, we must invest in alternatives. It is not as easy as just prohibiting something tomorrow. There is a need to look at the available alternatives and time to invest in alternatives. For this, companies need to innovate, and to innovate they need to be free. Putting the products on the market in an easier way. You cannot spend years and years on something that cannot be harmful, just because that precaution principle is so important in Europe. Companies must show that the product is safe. But in the end, the market will decide if the product is going to be effective and successful. So, we need to trust the market, farmers, and distributors.  They do not want to spend time and money on something that does not work. So we let them do the job and let the market decide the real alternatives. That is an amazingly easy approach, instead of pushing things from the top to down.  It is crucial to change our mindset to achieve these goals. To help companies innovate, let us work with the market and not stop our innovation with regulations. For example, as per the new European regulation, besides four or five products, it is not possible to put microbial-based biostimulants on the market. We do not even know what is needed to put that on the market if we study a new microbial, a bacterium, or a fungus that can be replaced as an alternative product or can make fertilizer or pesticides more efficient and effective. This restricts innovation. We cannot put those products on the market in Europe while they can be marketed in the US and some countries in South America, and Asia. We want the Green Deal with a simplification of the rules, which does not mean we can put everything on the market but lays out the guidelines and then lets the market do its job.