Research, development and discussion

Researchers develop crop 
protection products, regulators 
limit use and consumers worry

Syngenta’s Willy Ruegg in a greenhouse full of canola plants.

Syngenta is a household name for farmers so I was quite excited at the opportunity to visit its Crop Protection plant in Stein, AG, Switzerland, this January with the Swiss Farm Writers Association. The Stein plant is the third largest globally and concentrates on research and development of fungicide and insecticide products. Less than three per cent of products are sold in Switzerland. Most are developed for and sold in the rest of the world, to small-scale farmers, large commercial farms and everything in between.

We journalists peered into hundreds of lab samples of new Crop Protection Products (CPP), some still crawling with tiny insects. We peeked into one of many chambers which simulate the climate of a country a product is being developed for; stopped by a greenhouse full of blooming canola plants. Rice trials for aphid control products were growing in six-inch cylinders on a table. Everywhere there were big signs on the doors with watering instructions. The scientists can do everything right but if the watering doesn’t comply, the trial is useless.

Willy Ruegg, head of bio research of the plant, told us it’s a constant balance between science and speed. “Do we really need a whole greenhouse of canola plants?” Ruegg said what he needs is brains — data processing more than data production.

Did you know that 100 kilos of wheat (about 250 pounds) has a surface of 80 square metres, treated by only 200 millilitres of liquid? And that the dust tolerance of seed treatments is smaller than that of M&Ms? I came out of the tour with respect for the lengthy complicated process to bring a new chemical product on the market. Agriculture chemicals take longer to develop than pharmaceutical products. Each country has its own specific problems in climate and pests, and also its own set of regulations.

Syngenta’s Willy Ruegg explains some of the processes required 
to produce a new crop protection product. photo: Marianne Stamm

Crop protection products

The event was more than just a tour of the facility. I was just as interested in the panel discussion, which centered on the new Swiss action plan for crop protection products (CPP). The Swiss government asked several departments, including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment to put together an action plan for the reduction of emissions of CPP.

All stakeholders had an opportunity for feedback over the last six months. Not surprisingly, the responses went from far too regulated to not nearly enough, depending on the interests of the stakeholders. Taking part in the panel discussion was Olivier Felix from the Department of Agriculture who presented the main points in the action plan; Joel Meier, technical head at Syngenta; Thomas Wyssa, President of the Swiss vegetable farmers and representative of farmers using chemical products for plant protection; and Andreas Bosshard, director of Vision Landwirtschaft, a green agriculture society.

The action plan aims to reduce emissions from CPP in Switzerland by 50 per cent by 2050. It’s an ambitious plan, considering that tests for CPP residues in Swiss plant products are consistently below or far below recommended rates. The action plan paper states as much, adding that this fact still doesn’t make the consumer feel safer, despite repeated media articles. As Willy Ruegg told me, science doesn’t sell. Emotion does. (Sounds like politics!) It made me wonder how much of this action plan is catering to the consumer’s perceived beliefs and how much to real issues about CPP emissions.

Panel comments

Meier, of Syngenta advised caution in deciphering statistics and numbers. For every new active CPP agent released for use in the EU, four are banned. The less active agents we have available in the crop protection palette, the more risk of resistance to the products we have, he said. Ruegg too is quite concerned about resistance. Product cost and consumer/government reactions cause many farmers to spray less than recommended rates. Ruegg says that’s like taking only half the antibiotic prescription the doctor gave you.

“We don’t need higher yields,” Bosshart of Vision Landwirtschaft insisted. “We need more efficient production and distribution.” He spoke of growing food with less energy calories, i.e. growing crops for human consumption instead of for cattle feed. Bosshard cited the dairy industry as a gross misuse of energy calories. He says the amount of imported calories for dairy cattle feed in Switzerland would feed two million people.

Bosshard does have a point about being more efficient with what we have. There is the food waste between the field and the store. (I’ve seen that in Zambia, where tonnes of corn don’t make it to the market due to corrupt or inefficient supply chains.) We hear a lot in Switzerland of the enormous waste of food after purchase. Much could be done here, Bosshard says, while drastically lowering the overall use of pesticides. Bosshard himself is part owner of an organic farm. They successfully produce apples for sale without pesticides, by planting resistant varieties.

The consumer wants healthy vegetables without blemish yet produced without chemicals. That’s an oxymoron, said Wyss, himself a large-scale vegetable farmer. Wyss would like to see more real dialogue between all stakeholders, not more regulation; research projects that all take part in together. He cites the high criteria to sell vegetable products. If his produce doesn’t meet it, it is destroyed. If he misses a single CPP pass on his onions, the whole field can be damaged and he loses the whole profit.

The panel discussion showed me again how difficult it is to find a consensus between parties. I liked Wyss’ point, of working together more instead of each funding their own research and then working against each other. That takes an ability to truly listen and hear what the other is saying. I’ll admit I had to stop the voices in my head while listening to Bosshard speak of a pesticide-free Switzerland. Then I could admit he had some very valid points!

Swiss Ag journalists tour the Seed Care Institute 
(seed treatment R & D) of Syngenta, Stein, Switzerland. photo: Marianne Stamm

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