Rising paranoia about the environmental impact of modern farm chemicals, particularly in Europe, risks making climate change and other environmental and food sustainability problems worse.
Regulators are facing increasing pressure to respond to unscientific and corrupted opinion-driven processes which ignore the reality about what is good for the planet says crop protection company boss, Eryk Fyrwald.
“I don’t fear stringent regulation. In fact I welcome it,” said Syngenta’s Swiss-based chief executive officer.
“What we fear, in Europe especially, is the politicisation and corruption of regulatory process and ad hoc scrutiny of specific products rather than recognition of how well they satisfy regulatory requirements.”
He has urged Australian farmers to guard the gains achieved by sophisticated synthetic chemistry, including options to promote drought tolerance in crops.
Syngenta has felt the pointy end of environmental campaigns against some of its chemicals, particularly widely used neonicotinoid pesticides which draw repeated media attention as critics claim the 20-year-old chemistry is now responsible for declining bee numbers.
When approval processes become politicised you get bad things happening on a broader scale
Popular Syngenta and Bayer neonicotinoid brand names in the farm and garden market include Confidor, Gaucho and Cruiser.
A 2014 European Union (EU) ban on “neonics” in flowering crops such as canola is poised to extend to all open field crops, with the British Government recently switching its stance to support an extension.
Studies cited by anti-chemical groups show neonic seed treatments and sprays not only kill insect pests such as cabbage stem flea beetles which chew emerging canola seedlings, they kill bees and other pollinators, too.
Broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate has also been in EU politicians’ sights amid claims it causes cancer, although legislative moves to ban it were postponed in October.
“When approval processes become politicised you get bad things happening on a broader scale,” said Mr Fyrwald, who also notes plenty of evidence suggesting neonics do not significantly impact on bee health.
Wider problem risk
He said banning or rejecting a scientifically proven products which could be helpful to the whole agricultural and environmental system created “a whole lot of new problems”.
“Farmers are left to revert back to older, less effective chemistry, or are forced to stop growing certain crops altogether,” he said.
“If herbicide technologies are restricted we can expect farmers to do more weed control by cultivation which uses more energy, degrades soil structure, creates more runoff and reduces water quality.
“Apart from the big challenge of feeding the world, some of the biggest problems facing humanity are water quality, greenhouse gases and climate change.”
Agriculture can be a solution to the greenhouse gas problem if we make sensible use of the available synthetic technology, but if we turn away from it I guarantee we’ll add to our climate change problems
Technology from Syngenta and others was helping developed and developing agricultural economies – including vast, smoggy, dusty, water-challenged China – access to more efficient pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, better plant genetics and biotechnology.
“Agriculture can be a solution to the greenhouse gas problem if we make sensible use of the available synthetic technology, but if we turn away from it I guarantee we’ll add to our climate change problems, and increase our water availability and quality issues.”
While some lobbyists and global non-government organisations pushed the “no-tech” organic agriculture agenda, Mr Fyrwald, in Australia briefly to meet leading farmers and Syngenta staff, said any suggestion organic methods would feed the world or improve land management were largely “a myth”.
Organic farming relied on cultivation and use of “naturally occurring” pesticides which were not necessarily better for, or softer on, the environment than modern chemistry.
“There are plenty of natural chemicals which are very dangerous,” he said.
“Organic farming yields are also on average 35 per cent to 40pc lower than conventional crops, so if we want to increase organic production results it will come with more deforestation and land clearing.
“Rather than just talk about specific chemical products, let’s talk about the whole system and what’s requires if we are to help farmers sustainably feed the globe.”
Good growth credentials
Syngenta’s much applauded “good growth plan” had made gains in developing Africa and Asia improving the efficiency of small landholders in developing countries and improving farming strategies on water and soil management, and avoid land clearing.
The good growth plan was recently recognised by 125 global food companies making up the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture in relation to Syngenta’s work with Kellogs and the US Nature Conservancy trust on sustainable wheat production.
“The award has actually opened up better dialogue with key NGOs about what sustainable ag, climate change and greenhouse issues really mean and what’s important to both sides,” Mr Fyrwald said.
In Australia, Syngenta research recognised the often-challenging climate and the need to anticipate a shift to drier or more erratic seasons.
“That includes looking at different ways to use growth regulators to get plants to manage and adapt to stressful conditions, or seed coatings to help plants make a more resilient start to life.”