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Food security Syngenta aims to win support for ʻresponsible growthʼ

Replacing traditional rice farming with mechanical planting of pre-treated healthy seedlings would boost the yields by 30%, according to Syngenta

(AFP)

Syngenta, the world’s top maker of crop chemicals, wants to work more closely with farmers, the public sector and NGOs to feed the world’s growing population. But just how altruistic is “The Good Growth Plan” launched by the Swiss agribusiness multi a year ago?

The Basel-based company selling seeds, crops, fertilisers and pesticides recently presented its growth programmeexternal link with its commitments to social security and explained how it wants to do its bit to tackle the challenges of having to feed the world’s growing population.

On the same day, UN researchers forecast that the world population will rise to up to 12.3 billion by the end of the century from 7.2 billion today.

During a session on food security, Syngenta officials said the company believed it had to expose itself in multidisciplinary discussions on this controversial, social and political issue to win more sympathy.

“We are convinced that the economy must play a larger role,” said Christoph Mäder, Syngenta’s head of legal and taxes. “Innovation and technology often come from the private sector. That’s why you can’t just rely on the public sector alone to solve this problem.”

Mäder cited alarming figures and forecasts to win over the audience, made up of journalists, farmers, government officials, industry representatives and NGOs: The world population increases by 200,000 people every day and about 870 million suffer from hunger. In 2050, four billion people will live in countries affected by water shortage. Every second, 180,000 people move from rural to urban areas and farmland the size of a football pitch is lost to soil erosion, he warned.

The best solution

The figures are uncontested, but there is little agreement on how this should be tackled. While United Nations agencies and non-profit organisations see the best solution in a move away from industrial agriculture, the industry claims that better productivity is the answer.

To increase credibility and transparency, Syngenta has partnered with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the United States aid agency USAID and the Fair Labor Association. An independent company is collecting its data, and the results are reviewed as part of its annual report.

Making crops more efficient and rescuing more farmland by improving fertility are two of Syngenta’s six commitments. More controversial for a crop company are the remaining four goals; enhancing biodiversity, empowering small farmers and improving labour safety and working conditions.

Opponents say that these commitments remedy problems Syngenta and other multinational crop companies created in the first place. By promoting fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified, hybrid or other standardised crops, multinational companies impair food sovereignty, diversity and the livelihoods of small farmers, they claim.

Criticism

One of the main critics is Berne Declarationexternal link, which published a 20-page report entitled “More Growth Than Good” on the same day as Syngenta’s event.

For the non-profit organisation the motives are clear: Crop companies are forced to act because the agricultural industry suffers from an image problem and because the United Nations urges them to recognize their obligations and social responsibility. It criticises the plans’ goals as inadequate and argues that the company’s actions ignore human rights due diligence.

“Even if the plan meets all of its goals, it will produce no sustainable or ʻgoodʼ business practices for humans and the environment,” the organization said. “Through selectively chosen goals and indicators, key problems caused by Syngenta’s corporate policies are systematically disregarded.”

Another point of criticism is that Syngenta does not endorse the paradigm shift in agriculture, which is seen as the solution for food security by many UN agencies. They call for a radical transformation that would at the same time eliminate poverty, gender inequality, poor health and malnutrition.

Their idea is to move away from the current industrial agriculture and globalised food system to a conglomerate of small, bio diverse, ecological farms around the world and a localised food system that promotes consumption of local produce.

Bee loss The boon and bane of pesticides

PLACEHOLDER

New restrictions on the use of certain pesticides to protect bees will not only impact crop chemical companies, like Basel-based heavyweight Syngenta, but also the way European farmers produce the food we eat.

For about three weeks in May, extensive rape fields transform large rural areas in France, Germany and Britain into yellow.

German farmers alone grow about five million tons of rapeseed used for edible oil, fuel and fodder on 1.5 million hectares of arable land. Rapeseed oil is not only the most popular nutritional oil in Germany; rape flower celebrations attract tourists to towns like Sternberg in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the German state with the highest rapeseed production.

Rapeseed farmer Wolf-Dietmar Vetter is proud of the yellow-blossomed fields visitors admire when they drive through the region. But he is also concerned about the announced ban of nicotine-like pesticides, which he uses to fight various pests like pollen beetles, cabbage stem weevils and brassica pod midges on his 600 hectares around Sternberg.

“We are worried of course, and we don’t know what will happen next year,” Vetter said. “Seeds treatment with pesticides is very valuable for us because it is the most ecological. Because of the ban we will end up having to spray our crops more frequently and over large areas.”

Clash over pesticides

Neonicotinoids were one of the first insecticides, which could be broadly used to treat seeds, allowing farmers to control important pests systemically on the entire plant.

Swiss and EU authorities recently suspended the use of these nicotine-like substances on some crops for two years over concerns that they may be linked to deaths in bee populations. They cited research showing that the nerve poison affects the bees’ orientation and navigation.

According to Syngenta, thiamethoxam, the active substance, does not have any “unacceptable” long-term effects on non-targeted beneficial arthropods as seed treatment or foliar sprays.

Jacques Bourgeois, director of the Swiss farmers’ association, fears that the authorities “put the cart before the horse” by banning pesticides before securing proof that they are linked to bee colony collapse.

Swiss beekeepers and researchers like Peter Gallmann from the Swiss centre for bee research, on the other hand, welcome the decision and urge the government to pledge more funds into studying the collapse of bee colonies. They say pesticides are one of many factors having a negative effect on bee health.

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Concerned producers

The European Union announced at the end of April that it would suspend the use of neonicotinoids for two years from December over concerns they contribute to a decline in bee populations. Beekeepers and environmental lobby groups like Greenpeace welcomed the decision.

The moratorium affects almost all rapeseed in Germany, said Wolfgang Vogel, president of the German oil plant union. As a result of the ban, German and European agriculture could lose an important plant for crop rotation, he warned.

For Swiss farmers, the issue is also existential.

The pesticides secure our yields, explained Markus Ritter, president of the Swiss farmers’ association. “There is almost no organically grown rapeseed in Switzerland, an indication that protecting that crop is an unsolved problem. Extensive spraying – currently the only alternative – is more harmful to untargeted organisms than targeted seed treatment.”

For farmers in the Swiss Rhine Valley the suspension of neonicotinoids is going to be a “major” problem, according to Ursina Galbusera, who is responsible for crop farming at the Swiss association. “We fear that some farmers will end up having to quit growing maize altogether.”

At the same time, farmers are also concerned about substances which potentially harm bees, because the insects pollinate all their crops, said Ritter, who has been a passionate farmer but also a beekeeper for 30 years.

More at stake

Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemicals company with annual sales of $14.2 billion (CHF13.3 billion), said the suspension of nicotine-like pesticides will impact its sales at under $100 million and that the losses would be partly compensated.

But for chemical companies there is also more at stake. Research during the two-year moratorium will either absolve their nicotine-like pesticides or reveal incriminating evidence linking them with dwindling bee populations, engendering a permanent ban.

The crop protection lobby warns that such a ban would erode the EU’s potential wealth by up to €17 billion over five years, putting the jobs of over a million people at risk. Those at least are the bleak findings of a report Bayer and Syngenta commissioned and financed to assess the value of neonicotinoid seed treatment.

The impact on companies’ revenues would also only be negligible as long as the suspension is limited to the EU. The products are growth drivers with projected peak sales of almost $2 billion worldwide, according to analysts’ estimates.

“The immediate effect on Syngenta’s sales is not very important, but there is concern about a global extension of the neonicotinoid ban – although we currently consider it unlikely,” said Martin Schreiber, an analyst at Zürcher Kantonalbank.

Schreiber estimates that Syngenta’s insecticide Actara and the seed treatment Cruiser Maxx – both containing the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam – generate $1 billion in sales. And replacing established optimised products requires time and money, Schreiber said.

Syngenta says itself that it is “extremely challenging” to find equally safe and effective alternatives, said spokesman Daniel Braxton.

Safety considerations

Crop protection products are biologically active against pests. That is why they also carry the risk of being active against non-targeted organisms, said Olivier Félix, who is responsible for pesticides at the Federal Office for Agriculture.

It is the job of the industry to prove their products don’t carry any risk, we just check the evidence, Félix told swissinfo.ch. The requirements are stricter today, and we often have additional demands, requiring extra research and drawing out the process, Félix said.

“When we assess whether to approve a product we don’t just look at toxicity, we have to guarantee that the substance does not pose any unacceptable risk,” Félix explained. “We add safety margins into a realistic worst-case scenario, which result in a high level of security.”

Over the last 20 years, the EU re-evaluated about 1,000 crop protection substances. Two thirds of them were dropped because their limited business value did not justify the considerable investment into a re-evaluation.

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Alternatives

It costs about $200 million to develop a new active ingredient from scratch, a process involving 2,500 scientists and 25,000 field trials in multiple sites, according to the company. From discovery to market entry it may take companies eight to ten years.

Pesticides are cheaper to develop than medicines, and their market is less regulated, Schreiber said. But many aspects are similar because effective chemicals – often toxic – inherently have the risk of causing collateral damage. So, safety is key.

Plant protection companies must prove that their substances selectively but effectively kill pests, but at the same time do not harm untargeted species and the environment – similar to effective medicines and their unwanted side effects. The challenge is to find the right balance, Syngenta says.

Switzerland withdrew the licenses for 124 out of 450 substances on the market in 2005, said Olivier Félix, responsible for pesticides at the Federal Office for Agriculture. Most of them had been used for a long time and were probably safe, but today you need proof, he said.

Authorities demand a comprehensive dossier, documenting the substance’s effects on all potentially affected organisms and for any conceivable use or dosage. Syngenta typically hands in 80 to 100 folders when it applies for marketing application for one of its products.

As a result, the pesticides available today are much safer than 20 years ago, Félix said. But they still retain their negative image in public perception, and are often perceived to be more harmful than other toxins produced for example by bacteria or fungus in foods, he explained.

Consumers tend to forget that crop protection products are used to improve produce, says Félix. The perfect products on the shelves today could not be made without producers taking invisible measures in the background to protect their cultures and enhance their crops, Félix explained.

This view is shared by many activists around the world including Vandana Shiva, one of the anti-globalisation and environmental activists in favour of moving towards more ecological agriculture, self-reliance and food sovereignty.

The Indian environmentalist claims that Western companies are only interested in developing markets to sell their seeds and chemicals. Shiva told swissinfo.ch that the multinationals have locked small farmers into an unsustainable system - a “chemical trap” which was never necessary in farming. 

Boosting yields

Syngenta knows that it will not be easy answering critics. According to a survey the company itself presented a year ago a majority of respondents spoke out in favour of organic agriculture and fewer pesticides.

Executives agree that uneducated farmers often use too many pesticides and fertilisers. That is why its experts reach and teach – they go out to farms to train farmers on how to use crop chemicals more effectively.

Syngenta’s growth programme aims to provide farmers with the knowledge and the tools to boost yields without using more water, soil or other inputs such as chemicals or workforce. It set up a global network where it compares productivity at about 900 reference farms advised and trained by Syngenta staff with 2,600 benchmark farms.

People in urban areas have little connection with agriculture and often romanticise the rural life subsistence farmers are leading in developing countries, Syngenta criticises. That is why many would be surprised that it is often the farmers who approach the companies because they want to learn how to boost yields.

“The top priority for many subsistence farmers is to pay for the education of their kids,” explained Dino Sozzi, Syngenta’s technical director for Africa and the Middle East. “To achieve that, you need to increase your crops’ yields. This will allow you to trade so you may earn enough to get out of the poverty trap and send your kids to school.”

Crops and chemicals

Syngenta, Germany’s BASF and Bayer; as well as Monsanto, Dow and DuPont from the United States together dominate the world’s seed and crop chemicals markets. These companies, collectively known as the “Big 6”,  sell toxic pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides); fertilisers, hormones and growth agents.

According to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international environmental treaty, three out of four of the most dangerous and persistent chemicals are pesticides. Many of them were only banned or restricted after having harmed people, pets, agricultural workers or wildlife by overuse, misuse – and even lawful use.

Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta together also control more than half of the seeds traded worldwide. While crop companies say that their products address food security, critics argue that the dominance of a handful of companies selling standardised products, hybrid or genetically modified crops endangers biodiversity and the sovereignty of farmers in emerging economies.

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