Syngenta aims to retreat from toxic chemicals
New York/London — Pushed by consumers and governments opposed to pesticides, and pulled by farmers needing drought- and flood-resistant crops, Syngenta wants to retreat from conventional chemicals into products less toxic to humans and more resilient to climate change.
“We’ll continue to drive down the use of pesticides,” said CEO Erik Fyrwald. “Consumers want that. Governments want that. We want it.”
Conventional pesticide makers including Syngenta and Bayer are under pressure over their products’ impact on the environment and biodiversity, as consumers grow more environmentally conscious and distrustful of pesticides used to produce food.
Climate change, together with the sustainability push, is upending strategies and businesses of well-established companies from oil producers investing in renewable energy to meat producers making plant-based burgers.
As part of Syngenta’s “good growth plan”, the company is investing $2bn in sustainable agriculture by 2025, aiming to deliver two technological breakthroughs every year.
Safer chemistries and biotechnology will help reduce pesticides “more and more towards zero,” Fyrwald said. “I don’t think it’ll get to zero.”
The company has already seen in recent years predecessor advances to what he hopes will come out of its increased investments, such as restoring degraded pasture in Brazil, strawberries traceable back to their farm by QR code and umami-tasting tomatoes with extended shelf lives.
Other initiatives include drought-resistant seeds and corn that helps cattle digest feed better, boosting productivity and reducing methane emissions.
Crop protection made up three-quarters of Syngenta’s 2019 revenue, with insecticides accounting for 15% of the total and fungicides a larger share. The company was formally combined this month into Syngenta Group.
Fyrwald said the company does “very little conventional lobbying” outside some trade groups that he said were largely focused on competitive tax and education policies.
“I get personally involved in talking to regulators about climate change, and the need for technology to be available,” he said.
Fyrwald identified the world’s $700bn in agricultural subsidies as resources that might otherwise “be a tremendous benefit to fighting climate change.”
Syngenta is working with farmers to educate them on using pesticides only when needed and safely. It uses digital precision agriculture, which targets diseases, weeds and diseases only where it is needed. In China, it is expanding a network of centres where it helps farmers get higher yields while using less pesticides and fertilisers, and protecting soil and water. It charges farmers per hectare instead of per bottle of pesticide.
“Our goals are aligned — minimise the use of pesticide to control the pest,” Fyrwald said.
Climate change means longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures, encouraging pests and weeds to thrive. So farmers have been spraying more chemicals on their crops, which leads to a growing resistance to the pesticides.
Biological products, which use natural ingredients from spider venom to insect sex pheromones in fighting pests, could help address this challenge and are gaining more customers among farmers. Syngenta is investing in developing the products and will be making acquisitions in the space, Fyrwald said.
“The future of food is consumers wanting climate-smart, climate-friendly grown and produced foods. I think that’s where the world is headed,” he said. “When consumers demand it, they’ll get it.”