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Syngenta struggles to shrug off GM concerns

Syngenta is one of the leading agribusiness companies

(Keystone)

Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta continues to make healthy profits in the field of improving crop yields despite facing continued criticism.

The firm says its crop protection agents and genetically modified (GM) seeds are helping to increase global food supply, but watchdog groups claim some of its activities harm developing countries.

Syngenta recently posted a half-year net income of $1.5 billion (SFr1.57 billion) as demand for its products increased worldwide. Chief executive Mike Mack said the company is committed to meeting the challenge of improving global food supply by 50 per cent in the next 20 years.

"Rising commodity prices and their impact on the cost of food have heightened awareness of the vital role of agriculture," he said in a statement.

"Across all our businesses, we are intensifying our focus on emerging markets in order to bring the benefits of modern agricultural technology to countries where the need for productivity gains is most pronounced."

But non-governmental organisations, such as the Berne Declaration, claim that some of Syngenta's activities are harming the very developing countries it is seeking to help.

The pressure group has waged a long campaign against the toxic Paraquat weed killer that has been banned in Europe and several other countries. It also criticises the company for trying to file patents on living organisms, such as rice genes, which it claims could hinder the research of competitors.

Biofuel controversy

Berne Declaration spokesman François Meienberg also accused Syngenta of adding to the problems of food productivity by developing genetically modified corn for biofuels that is reducing the amount of crops available for consumption.

"By promoting biofuels they are playing a part in the rising food prices that we have seen in the last few months and years," he told swissinfo.

"They have always told us that we need genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because there is a limited surface available for agricultural production. But it is a contradiction to say we need to use this land to produce biofuels because this will have a negative impact on food security."

Syngenta, which has always maintained the safety of the Paraquat weed killer, hit back at the criticism by saying that its work to enhance corn production also helps produce more food.

"Syngenta is also working on second-generation biofuels, which will use organic waste matter, and not the food part of the plant," the company added in a statement to swissinfo.

GM moratorium

The company is also facing a hostile environment to its GMO activities in Switzerland, which in 2005 approved a five-year moratorium on agricultural use. A GM crop test site in Zurich was destroyed in June.

This has forced Syngenta to increase its activities in this field in the United States and the company is also building a research centre in China.

"Syngenta believes that all farmers should be able to choose the best available technologies, including GM to meet their crop production needs in a sustainable way. GM is a safe technology that has been successfully used by farmers for many years," the firm stated.

The company remains convinced that its work will help solve the food shortages of the world, but the debate is set to rumble on.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Syngenta

Syngenta was formed in 2000 from the merger of Novartis' and AstraZeneca's crop businesses.

It is the world leader in crop protection and ranks third in the high-value commercial seeds market.

It posted healthy first half results in 2008, with net income of $1.5 billion (SFr1.57 billion), a 20% increase in crop protection sales and a 15% rise in seeds sales.

Net income for the whole of 2007 was recorded at $1.1 billion and $634 million in 2006.

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GMO Moratorium

In 2005 Swiss voters accepted a proposal for a five-year blanket ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Swiss agriculture.

The result forced the Swiss government to put in place some of the toughest legislation on GMOs in Europe.

The European Union, of which Switzerland is not a member, ended a six-year moratorium on accepting applications for new genetically modified foods in 2004.

But Germany and France, two of Switzerland's neighbours, have both voted to uphold national bans on products they deem unsafe.

Spain is the only EU country that has been growing GMOs (GM maize) in any significant quantities. Otherwise, the EU remains largely GMO-free.

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