Solutions Week event summary
Thursday, Apr 27, 2023
What role does innovation play in creating a sustainable food system? That’s exactly the question a panel of experts from across Syngenta’s crop protection, seeds and biologicals divisions tackled in the Forum Solutions Week event, sharing presentations on their experiences, regenerative agriculture and how it supports sustainability, the grower’s perspective on innovation, and more, with robust Q&A and discussion.
Robert Renwick, Head of Business Sustainability EAME for Syngenta Crop Protection, didn’t mince words when kicking it off, telling moderator Jacki Davis agriculture is currently being seen as a problem in Europe. Yet, Syngenta is looking to change that with its vision of sustainability for agriculture. This entails three elements: economic sustainability for farming, social sustainability for farming communities, and environmental sustainability.
To make that vision a reality requires innovation, as it may be the only way to meet the 2030 deadline for sustainability goals set by the European Union.
“We need to accelerate what we’re doing, and the scale is really important,” Renwick said. “This is not about experiments. This is about doing something on a massive scale on millions of hectares.
“We’re going to be talking about new things to do on farms, using new products like biologicals, regenerative agricultural practices, as well as getting the technology to market in that time. So, it is urgent, and we need to really get moving.”
If innovations are not implemented quickly, Renwick feels farmers in Europe are going to be left at a competitive disadvantage compared to farmers in the United States, Latin America, and other countries. Yet, there’s significant headwinds in terms of the regulatory environment in Europe versus the rest of the world. Farmers elsewhere are able to get innovations and tools far sooner than those in Europe, with Renwick using the example it takes 2-3 years to register a biocontrol in the U.S. compared to 10 years in Europe.
“We need to work faster,” Renwick said. “We need to work together with innovators, policymakers, farmers, and everybody together.
“This is a vision; it’s innovation. This is what every one of us in Syngenta is working to do, and we are absolutely committed to delivering.”
Agcelerating innovation in Seeds
Joining from Syngenta’s RTP Innovation Center in North Carolina (US), Charles Baxter, Global Head of Traits, Regulatory and Product Safety for Syngenta Seeds, works at one of the company’s key global sites for delivering innovations to its seeds business, both through conventional breeding and the use of biotechnology. And that technology is evolving along with some of its uses, as is the regulatory framework that governs the use of some of this technology.
“Regulations are key to delivering some of the commitments that we have in order to deliver a more sustainable agricultural system over the ambitious timeline that’s being described,” Baxter said.
When it comes to new genomic technologies (NGTs) globally, the number of products created using this technology is increasing, particularly in China, the US and Latin America. Argentina, in particular, is a country that has a strong framework for managing new genomic technologies which encourages local and international companies to develop products. While most new NGT products globally are still in the research phase the expectation is to see many enter the marketplace in the next 5 to 10 years, especially in more progressive markets.
NGTs have the ability to shorten the plant-breeding or product-development cycles, which is critical to enable new products with improved sustainability benefits to come to the marketplace. Hence, why their development is at the forefront with such a challenging timeline in Europe to meet sustainability targets.
As mentioned before, the regulations around the use of the technology are also evolving. Baxter cited India as one of the latest countries to develop a framework for managing NGTs, with specific categories being exempt from GM regulations, as Indian legislators understand that such changes occur naturally in plants and other organisms. Closer to home, the UK has been moving ahead with its legislative framework for NGTs and a precision breeding bill, and the EU has done a positive risk assessment on the technology, with the industry eagerly awaiting the next steps set to come out this June from the EU Commission.
Baxter closed by saying if we are to continue to feed a global population that has both demands for more and different food types, particularly in more of an urban population, this technology allows agriculture to deliver more from fewer inputs. And having clear, standardized regulations across all countries will only make that a stronger reality.
“I think we’re there with the technology,” Baxter said. “We’re ready to go. We want the confidence [through a coherent regulatory framework] because then we have a route to market. We’re investing in this area. We want others to buy into it and invest in it, too, for the future.”
While Baxter introduced the idea of NGTs during his session, Sarah Iveson, Syngenta’s Head of Field Crops Seeds Development for EAME, hit home why they’re such a key component to Syngenta’s technology toolbox, and how they help farmers sustainably increase crop yields and bring better products to market faster.
Iveson first shared how NGTs have improved pest and pathogen tolerance, allowing plants to thrive with reduced pesticide use while still maintaining yields, which can help lower cost on farm. It also means a reduction of food loss, which is a significant issue when you consider there is approximately 88 million tons of food lost or wasted within the EU each year, which equates to roughly €140 billion annually.
Climate change is an ever-increasing problem not just in the EU but globally. It’s also another area NGTs help by enhancing a plant’s adaptability, such as improving root architecture for better water use, or improving nitrogen use efficiency, which will help reduce the burden farmers currently have on fertilizers.
New tools can help improve the nutritional composition of some crops and improve sustainability. Iveson gave some examples, including building better oil profiles to replace unsustainable palm oil and increasing protein content in various crops. And all of these benefits can be done faster than ever before thanks to NGTs.
“You may ask how does this benefit the end user and what do they care about it?” Iveson said. “But if we are able to bring higher yielding products to farmers in half the time, then you can deliver a higher output of yield on the same amount of land. This really is an example of sustainable farming.”
Iveson finished by discussing hybrid wheat and how it will play a big role in sustainable cereals farming. While hybridization is a well-known technology already increasing yield and stability in crops like maize, sunflower, winter oilseed rape, barley, and many vegetables, it’s a far trickier development for wheat due to its complex genome..
“If we were starting the development of hybrid wheat now with new NGTs, then this really would bring a step change to enable us to bring the technology much faster to market with new characteristics,” Iveson said.
She mentioned that it took her team roughly 10 years to develop a stable production system for hybrid wheat, but with NGTs, that timeline could have been cut in half. NGTs also would’ve ensured faster and durable disease resistance to reduce the number of fungicide applications a farmer has to make, while also enhancing hybrid vigor and root architecture to bring greater yield stability in the wake of climate change.
Biologicals at the forefront of innovation
What are biologicals? Syngenta’s Riccardo Vanelli, Biologicals Head EAME, and Alberto Piaggesi, Global Head of Biostimulant Research at Valagro, delved into that during their session, starting off with a video sharing how biologicals are agricultural technologies that harness nature to protect and improve the health of food crops facing the stresses of today’s rapidly changing world.
The two main types are biostimulants, which enhance and strengthen crops, and biocontrols, which control pests and diseases.
A video shown shared an example about potatoes. They feed more than 1 billion people across the world, but potatoes aren’t built for our increasingly frequent heat waves and irregular water availability. Yet, a biological like QuantisTM from Syngenta help potatoes by enhancing their tolerance of heat and water deficiency, allowing the plant to remain greener for longer, giving it a better chance to reach its full, nutritious potential.
Climate changes like this are one of the biggest challenges biologicals help combat according to the speakers, along with food production and changing consumer behaviors. Fortunately, biologicals are at the forefront of combating these challenges.
“The innovations in biologicals can really be great contributors to the transformation for food security,” Vanelli said.
He explained that biologicals can really make a difference when they are combined with other technologies, such as crop protection products and digital agriculture. By bringing all three together, growers can cope with challenges like never before.
According to Piaggesi, this combination is called Geapower Technology, and it’s based on four pillars: deeper knowledge of the active ingredients and raw materials, Syngenta’s proprietary extraction process, advanced screening technology, and global open field trials. When combined, the technology is able to take all the evidence brought forth by a customer and find specific solutions to their problem.
In order to unleash the full potential of biologicals, though, Vanelli said there needs to be a supporting ecosystem in terms of policies and the regulatory framework to help improve the speed and adoption of these new technologies, in particular in Europe, but all over the world.
“We want to really speed up these new technologies that need to be introduced as soon as possible,” Vanelli said. “So, starting from the input, and going through the value chain partners, the NGOs, the growers and, of course, the regulators who can help to facilitate and speed up the introduction of biological solution.”
Regenerative agriculture is a term heard a lot in the industry, but what it means can be a bit tricky according to Mark Hall, Head of Sustainable Farming, Europe, Africa & Middle East for Syngenta.
“There are a number of definitions across the industry and across the value chain for regenerative agriculture,” Hall said. “Really, it’s a way of combining all of the fantastic technologies that we’ve heard about in an outcome-based farming system that really helps us to rejuvenate and restore soil health, to protect our climate, to lock up carbon within that soil, and to help protect our climate and to protect our water resources by optimizing water use and water storage within the soil. And by doing so, actually delivering an enhanced level of productivity and profitability.”
Regenerative agriculture is guided by a few key principles, including minimized soil disturbance, having plants in the ground all year round, precision application of biological and chemical inputs, and integrating livestock where possible.
While those principles seem simple, being a farmer himself, Hall understands those principles come with challenges. A big one is scientific evidence or the lack thereof to help support growers in taking the plunge in moving to a regenerative system. Cost of technology is another, as equipment that supports regenerative agriculture can be expensive and make the transition to steep to justify for many farmers.
Fortunately, Syngenta offers a new service, Interra® Scan, designed to help farmers unlock the secrets behind the variability in soils, which, when combined with Syngenta’s Cropwise suite, would then provide the scientific evidence to back up the importance of switching to regenerative agriculture.
“We’re giving growers the ability to, without interrupting or penetrating the soil, get an analysis and a visualization of the variability in their soils,” Hall said, “both from a macro nutrient, a soil texture, a micronutrient and other relevant properties that allow them to generate variable rate maps to place seed, to place fertilizer and other inputs, and to optimize the use of those according to those variables in soil conditions.”
Innovation sounds good in discussion, but it’s people like German farmer Hans-Heinrich Grünhagen who are the ones who use it or don’t in the real world. That’s why Syngenta’s Eva Haensel, Sustainable Portfolio Development Head Crop Protection Development for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, sat down with him to showcase the importance of the company/farmer relationship.
Grünhagen was introduced with a short video about himself, his family and his farm, before delving into how his thinking has shifted from focusing on his plants to his soil and the positive difference that’s made. However, it’s a mind shift that doesn’t come without hurdles, as he said the lack of available technology, equipment and education can hinder many. That’s where the relationship with companies like Syngenta can be so important.
“Syngenta supports us to test new things, and Syngenta provides the opportunity to communicate about our farms and the good things we are doing there,” Grünhagen said. “That’s what we need. We need communication.”
Mark Hall then joined Grünhagen in the discussion on how to encourage the transition further, using sound science and real-world results to help get them on the path to better farming practices.
From there, the session shifted to Q&A, with Sarah Iveson and Riccardo Vanelli joining the two farmers to discuss where we go from here to ensure we meet the challenges with the scale and speed necessary.
For Iveson, she doesn’t see a silver bullet but a convergence of technologies that will be necessary, and she expects to see it driven by digital applications in the next 10 to 20 years.
Meanwhile, Vanelli felt in order to accelerate innovation the industry must accelerate investment. Not necessarily in money, but in supporting growers to make sure that they can have fully access technologies. And investing in crop protection, biological seeds, digital ag and more working together, creating a favorable ecosystem for change.
A question from the audience brought it all home when, in referencing what happened with COVID-19 and the pharmaceutical industry, how can the agriculture industry learn from other industries and create an environment that encourages more and faster innovation.
“The level of evidence, the level of awareness … is not just enough,” Vanelli said. “We need to have a more stable process for introducing technology in order to avoid just in [emergency situations] and to be more stable in introducing innovation for the future challenges.”
All four agreed the best way to grow that awareness is more discussions with regulators to work together instead of at odds with one another.
“If we can have a science-based, risk-based discussion with the regulators on some of the innovations that we’ve talked about today, to say, how do we get those through the regulatory process faster, we can then speed up the innovation,” Iveson said, “and we can reduce the timing and collaboration with external parties.”
You can watch the whole event on our videos page.