When things heat up
From 2014 to 2016, the proportion of people who lack regular access to adequate food reduced from 15% to 11%. Despite the improvement, approximately 800 million people still suffer from hunger . In addition, global population is expected to increase to about 8.5 billion by 2030 , which will significantly increase global food requirements.
As food demand increases, Syngenta has worked to improve agricultural productivity. However, global warming – caused by the emissions of “greenhouse gases” – has created serious challenges:
- Limited natural resources: water stress is already a limiting factor to productivity; in 2012, it represented about US$40 billion in crop losses due to drought . By 2030, water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40% .
- Climate variability: even though moderate levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may improve some crop yields, if temperature exceeds the optimal level, yields and important nutrients tend to reduce, lowering quality of food .
- Extreme weather events: fundamental changes in precipitation or temperature patterns, as well as indirect effects of climate change, such as flooding, salinization or erosion, can decrease productivity and shift production seasons, pest and disease patterns .
The food guardian awakens
Syngenta, the global leader in agriculture , has committed to attend demand for food, while also protecting the planet’s natural resources. For this, it has stablished a goal of increasing agricultural productivity by 70% in 40 years, using limited natural resources.
Some of the supporting initiatives include: improvement in productivity, through crop protection products, irrigation projects and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer; seeds treatment and hybridization; and biotechnology – also known as “gene technology” or “genetic engineering” .
Besides the traditional integrated solutions, in response to the United Nations’ (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) announced in 2015 , Syngenta created the “Good growth path”. The initiative includes six commitments to be reached until 2020 to help farmers achieve the challenge in a sustainable way .
…and protects its motivations
If you read this post until this point, you must be thinking of Syngenta as the heroic company who will save the world from hunger and the world from climate effects. Indeed, these are complex challenges that nobody has yet been able to solve, so Syngenta does deserve credits for taking the first step and pushing the whole supply chain to think about it.
On the other hand, underlying interests might be driving Syngenta to specific actions that help not only crops but also profits to grow. However, is Syngenta really reaching its maximum potential as a company to solve climate change issues? Is it really solving climate change?
Out of the six commitments in the “Good growth path” initiative, for example, 3 are directly related to additional sales to the company. The examples speak by themselves: Commitment #1 is to “Make crops more efficient” and provides farmers with tests of new Syngenta products. Commitment #2 is to “Rescue more farmland” by increasing fertility of 10 million hectares and counts with sales teams building good practices into Syngenta’s offers and testing those with farmers. Finally, commitment #4 “Empower 20 million smallholders” supports farmers to produce more in a sustainable way by bringing them products, know-how and training.
Ultimately, these initiatives will very likely improve performance in a more sustainable way. Is it though a coincidence that 3 out of its 6 commitments are directly related to promotion of Syngenta’s products? Is Syngenta prioritizing its initiatives according to market opportunity?
What could Syngenta do instead?
It is known that intensive high-yield agriculture depends on the usage of fertilizers and herbicides that contain nitrogen acids. Despite increase in yields on its first application, additional applications of nitrogen and phosphorus will not be as effective, due to a diminishing return effect .
Besides the loss in efficiency, a study published in Nature explains how Nitrogen fertilization might increase the emission of gases that result in air pollution  . In other words, synthetic substances lead to higher yields but also increase air pollution.
If higher productivity in a sustainable way is one key goal for Syngenta, shouldn’t it pursue the development of new herbicides and fertilizers instead of trying to increase their usage across the globe?
This raises a simple question: is Syngenta pursuing the right path for a sustainable future in agriculture or is it trying to maximize its profits while nobody notices this contradiction?