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.
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.
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.
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.