Green crop protection works, but it is difficult to measure

Greenhouse of Syngenta Flowers

Joost Kos is Head of Research and Development Flowers at breeder Syngenta Seeds. Last year the seed breeder and agricultural chemical giant Syngenta announced that they would change course. The company is investing $ 2 billion dollars to counter the effects of climate change. In doing so, it aims to bring at least two technological breakthroughs to the market each year that reduce agriculture's contribution to climate change and help keep agriculture within the planet's capacity. We asked Kos how he experiences the new strategy and its results in his day-to-day job.

"The move towards sustainability has been going on within Syngenta for some time," says Kos. “But since last year we have set a strong ambition and goals. All steps we take are intended to reduce the use of chemical agents. That is also in our interest. For example, we already apply it in our own seed production. It's not for nothing that our revenue model is shifting from selling crop protection products to selling solutions. We prefer to develop, perhaps to everyone's surprise, varieties that require no or fewer chemicals. This is convincing proof to me that it is not – or not just - about selling plant protection products, but about selling a complete package of solutions. "

“Our transition is not easy; just like others, we are also looking for alternatives. We dare to say that out loud. All our efforts must ultimately lead to improved soil health, resource efficiency and habitat protection in key agricultural areas worldwide. A practical example: we invest in limiting spray drift (fanning out resources to places they are not intended for, ed.). Our investment policy goes much further. While previously there was little support for investments in, for example, sustainable energy if the payback time was too long, there must now be a sustainable component in all investments that we as a company undertake worldwide and the payback time no longer plays the leading role. Syngenta has also developed a reward system for employees who provide innovative ideas.” 

"The effectiveness of biological (green) pesticides, which are often also preventive agents, cannot be determined easily and with data due to the complexity of the soil and all the factors that are at work at the same time. But if you see it works in practice, then you are sold."

From Plant Health to Soil Health 
"We are at a major turning point in our way of thinking," says Kos. “We are going from an approach based on fertilizing the plant and the efficient absorption of nutrients by the plant, to putting all life in the soil at the center. Syngenta works together with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to improve soil fertility in Argentina and Brazil. 
I am convinced that a fertile soil increases the resilience of plants and the yield of the harvests, so that the use of pesticides can be reduced or even avoided at a later stage. The effectiveness of ‘green’ pesticides, which are often also preventive agents, is not easy to determine with data due to the complexity of the soil and all the factors that are at work at the same time. But if you see it works in practice, then you are sold. The future moves us from feeding plants to feeding the soil. ” 

Together towards a solution 
Agriculture is currently at the forefront of global efforts to combat climate change, says Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald. According to Kos, the entire chain in which agricultural products are processed into products that consumers buy will have to learn to work together. Together with market opportunities, they must learn to develop new products that consumers want to buy and at the same time realize sustainable agriculture and horticulture. He talks about the development of a new variant of ‘bizzy Lizzy’ (Impatiens) for the English market. This garden plant is very popular there, but it has also become very susceptible to disease. Together with the British retail chain Kingfisher, Syngenta therefore developed new resistant varieties of the Impatiens, which offered new market opportunities. 

Is there really progress in these types of processes? Kos: “Within Syngenta, we said, let's work together to solve the challenges that we face across the industry. We see that it is starting to work slowly, but we are also hindered by the 'chemical' image that sticks to us. Competing and distrusting each other, polarizes and blocks the innovative progress that is needed. The solution lies in close collaboration with all different partners. That requires trust and that takes time. " 

Original article in Dutch can be found here: