What does biodiversity mean to Syngenta?
Biological diversity is fundamental to agriculture, food production and sustainable development. We at Syngenta understand this well. Our understanding is not externally imposed, and it does not rely on our Corporate Responsibility Committee - this understanding is in our bones. For our seeds business, biodiversity is the crucial raw material. To increase the productivity of our crops, their reliability and their nutritional value, we must make full use of genetic diversity. Syngenta was the first company in our industry to support the Global Crop Diversity Trust (1). Our business in the UK is working in entirely unprecedented ways with growers and a major supermarket chain to help preserve bee populations. I really believe that we have begun to acknowledge this issue internally.
Do you really think that business goals can support environmental goals?
Syngenta’s principal contribution to biodiversity protection arises from the heart of our business, which is concerned with using technology to increase agricultural yields. At a time when population growth is starting to put huge pressure on food supplies, more efficient use of farmland is indispensable. Low yields are a recipe for deforestation and the destruction of fragile habitats. The fact that bien-pensant people in Europe recoil in horror at any mention of crop chemicals or GM crops does not alter what I understand is now called an inconvenient truth.
There are solutions, and we believe that the deployment of appropriate market mechanisms should be a large part of the response to the challenge. It is widely recognised that such mechanisms can achieve some environmental objectives at a lower economic cost and more easily than approaches such as uniform pollution standards or technology mandates. The market can advance the tipping point for success, after which market-supported progress gathers its own momentum. It is crucial to identify the most effective market mechanisms, in terms of environmental outcomes and financial leverage. A very powerful approach to ecosystem management involves creating new rights or liabilities for the use of natural resources, and then allowing these to be traded.
Market solutions for the environment is an interesting concept, can you explain this using a real example?
According to the IPCC, our current carbon flow adds 3.4 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere every year. The same report concludes that the potential for increasing carbon sinks in croplands could be of the order of 40 to 80 gigatons — between 12 and 25 years’ worth of emissions. Reducing tillage to a minimum, maintaining crop cover throughout the year and rotating crops all help to prevent soil erosion and conserve biodiversity. This conservation agriculture can dramatically reduce carbon emissions from mechanised tilling and allows organic matter to build up in soil, absorbing carbon dioxide.
Soil sequestration was — most unfortunately — not incorporated in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period. The opportunity to include agriculture in the carbon market was therefore missed and farmers had no incentive to take on the transition costs. It is noteworthy that no-tillage is well developed in both North and South America, whereas it remains a marginal practice in Europe. Syngenta and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture are both active in supporting the mitigation and sequestration of greenhouse gases in agriculture through our membership of the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund.
What are some of the most pressing challenges your company faces?
The world population will rise by some 30%, to 8 billion or so, by 2030 — and it won’t stop there. Increased consumption of meat as a result of rising prosperity in the developing world, especially in Asia, means that demand for grain is likely to outstrip population growth very considerably. Overall grain demand will probably grow by almost 50% between now and 2030. Where will it all come from? Some from new farmland — Brazil can probably add a few tens of millions of hectares without encroaching on the Amazon or Atlantic rainforests. But most of the increase must come from higher yields.
And, anyone involved in agriculture has to worry about water, since agriculture uses some 70% of the world’s fresh-water supplies — much of it rather badly. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have what is considered an adequate nutrition need a million litres each year to provide our food. The world as a whole needs quadrillions of litres. Freshwater resources are already being used unsustainably, and freshwater biodiversity is among the most threatened on Earth. This issue, too, is crying out for market solutions.
And what are some of the solutions?
Meeting the world’s increasing food, feed, fibre and fuel needs can be achieved. Thanks to the investments of Syngenta and its major competitors — between us we spend more than USD 3bn a year on R&D in this area — the technology will be there to meet the challenge.
The interests of biodiversity and — not least — the avoidance of famine require that we make full use of all technological possibilities, including, of course, gene technology, with all its potential environmental benefits. Unfortunately, inexcusable trade distortions remain in place. In addition, we see a retreat from scientific reason that moves away from the risk-based evaluation systems that have allowed the safe and beneficial use of technology for decades. In its place are creeping in hazard-based systems based on little more than fear and ignorance. With hazard as the measure of safety, we should have no cars or aircraft in the world.
Technology, deforestation, hunger — a world with 8 billion people has to choose.