Syngenta tackles sustainable food production

Monday, October 28, 2013

A previous post on this blog highlighted two different visions for how the growing global population will be fed.

One vision is based on applying modern technology from the private sector. The other vision is based on applying non-proprietary knowledge gained from natural systems.  This ‘contest’ is heating up with the announcement this month by Syngenta, the world’s largest supplier of agricultural chemicals, of their seven year plan to meet this challenge.

The plan, dubbed The Good Growth Plan, is remarkable, particularly given its authors.  The Good Growth Plan seeks to increase agricultural yields while not increasing the amount of water, pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers used.  And this comes from the largest global producer and seller of the last three products.

Syngenta has set six very specific goals related to increasing yields, improving soil fertility on degraded land, enhancing biodiversity and improving work safety and labour conditions on farms.  And Syngenta plans to use a third party evaluator to publish regular reports on their progress in achieving these goals.

In choosing these six goals, Syngenta is responding directly to some of the harshest criticisms of conventional agriculture.

Dr. Marco Ferrano, head of Syngenta’s Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, speaking at a recent food security conference at McGill University, went so far as to say we must ‘drop conventional agriculture’.  However, his presentation focused on the provision of modern technologies – crop protection agents, hybrid and GM seeds and cellphones, aspects of conventional agriculture that appear to be key elements of the program.

This apparent contradiction is linked to the notion of ‘sustainable intensification’.  The reduction in the use of water, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers is based on per tonne of crop produced, not per acre of land.  In fact, the use of these inputs may actually increase – but production will increase more – resulting in less intensive use of these inputs.

Syngenta’s push for increased production addressed only one of the four elements of food security – availability of food.  It doesn’t directly impact access to food, utilization of food or stability of supply.   However, Dr. Ferrano said that improving the productivity of small holder farmers in Africa should improve both access and stability of supply for a group that is often food insecure.

Importantly, Dr. Ferrano also noted that the era of food surpluses appears to be over, and that it is urgent that food production increase to match increasing consumption due to dietary changes (more meat and dairy products) and population increase.

Increasing food production in Africa is essential.  Syngenta’s plan is their attempt to respond to this challenge while retaining their own business model.  It remains to be seen how this plan will fit into the highly diverse African farm sectors.