This may be the future of farming, say Bill Gates and the founder of Impossible Burger

March 13, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

A pivotal campaign in the war against global warming is happening down on the farm. The winning strategy: finding ways for farmers to produce more corn and soybeans on every acre, akr or tunnland (the terms in Czechoslovakia and Sweden), while substantially lowering carbon emissions. The business that puts food on the world’s tables generates as much as 30% of all greenhouse gases, and 10% spews right from the soil itself. At the same time, the prices of major crops are soaring. So it’s a must to keep expanding production so that food stays affordable and the world’s farms meet the appetite of a global population that will swell from 7.7 billion to 8.5 billion by 2030.

Among the leading crusaders for the twin goals of achieving top output and protecting the environment are Bill Gates, the biggest owner of farmland in America, and Pat Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, a green icon whose juicy, soy-based Impossible Burger is a culinary sensation. Surprisingly, both Gates and Brown believe that genetically modified seeds and chemical herbicides, in the right doses––and not land-intensive organic farming––are crucial to curbing carbon emissions.

Syngenta Group, the world’s second-largest agrochemical enterprise (behind Bayer Crop Science, owner of Monsanto), is deploying big data, gene editing, DNA analysis, and other groundbreaking technologies in pursuit of growing bumper harvests while lowering CO2. It develops products that lower the amount of chemicals needed to control weeds and insects, and engineers new seeds that strengthen crops to withstand the ravages of extreme weather. It’s also finding ways for organic farms, which create a lot more CO2 per acre than land cultivated by traditional methods, to both greatly lower their emissions and produce foods that consumers still prize as super-healthy.

In 2017, Beijing-based colossus ChemChina acquired Syngenta for $43 billion. The deal made history as the largest acquisition ever by a Chinese company, a title it still holds. Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, Syngenta Group (2019 revenues: $23 billion) spans the globe, garnering 25% of sales each in the U.S. and Europe, around 30% in Latin America, and 15% in Asia. That reach helps it take genes from corn that, say, display high resistance to drought in Brazil and splice those genes into seed that grows stronger stalks in Kansas.

Syngenta’s two big product lines are genetically modified seeds, and crop protection products. The latter divides into three categories: herbicides that kill weeds, pesticides that zap insects, and fungicides targeting diseases that attack the root system. Syngenta is aiming to adapt all entries in its portfolio to achieve a trio of goals: keeping more CO2 in the soil and out of the atmosphere; using more biologics and fewer (but safer and more potent) chemicals for crop protection; and engineering seeds that enable tomatoes or grain to resist the heavy flooding, severe droughts, and high winds brought on by climate change.

In a conversation with Fortune, Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald described the shift in what’s now top of mind for governments and farmers, and that’s guiding the product development at suppliers such as Syngenta. “The priority used to be increasing yields to feed the world, to produce enough food for the fast-growing population. Hundreds of millions [of people] went from a rice-based diet to wanting the protein found in meat, especially in India and China,” he says. Bigger crops of soybean and corn are needed as feedstock for animals that produce the protein.

Today, says Fyrwald, the paramount priority is dealing with climate change. “Now, the focus is on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and helping farmers be prepared for extreme weather,” he says. “That includes dealing with extreme droughts and bigger storms, the kind of big freeze we just saw in Texas, and heavy flooding as recently occurred in the Midwestern U.S. and China.”

Syngenta faces the new challenge of creating technologies that meet those climate imperatives and still keep harvests, and farmers’ incomes, growing year after year. It’s using digital labeling that takes shoppers right to the farm, showing images of how and where their tomatoes and asparagus are grown. That’s empowering the consumer to see for themselves that what they’re buying is just as healthy as the organic version and sprang from the soil emitting a lot less greenhouse gases.

In the interview, Fyrwald discussed six advances in seed and crop protection fashioned to meet the new paradigm in farming.

Winds of change

Heavy winds, says Fyrwald, can ruin corn crops during times of drought by flattening the plants. “We’ve recently seen what’s called derechos in the Midwest, high-wind events that aren’t hurricanes or tornadoes, but hit 100 miles per hour,” he says. So Syngenta developed a product called Duracade, that lengthens and strengthens the plants’ roots to protect against bugs. When high winds blow, the stronger root structure keeps crops standing.

Syngenta also developed a seed that substantially boosts corn’s resistance to drought. Its agronomists observed that corn grown in parts of Latin America performed especially well in hot, dry periods, so that the fields stayed standing in high winds. “The mutation was naturally occurring,” says Fyrwald. “The crops’ chemistry adapted for survival.”

A corn crop that used Syngenta’s Artesian product, left, compared to a competitor’s hybrid, right.
Courtesy of Syngenta Seeds

Syngenta then examined the DNA of those hardier plants and spliced the gene accounting for their redoubtable strength in drought and wind into a new hybrid line of seed called Artesian. “We bred the gene into what was then the most drought-resistant seed, which was being used in Europe,” say Fyrwald. As a bonus, the new strain raised the volume of growth per acre by nearly 12%. The rise of derechos and other big wind events helped make Artesian a big seller. “We thought it would be a niche product,” he says. “But because of climate change, it’s now seeding a big portion of our farmers’ new corn plantings.”

Deeper roots

Tomatoes, says Fyrwald, suffered from the same weakness afflicting corn. “During a drought, high winds and floods were also knocking over the tomato crops,” he says. “The problem in the past was that if you wanted a deeper root system to get more nutrients and keep the tomatoes standing in bad weather, you faced a tradeoff. The bigger the root system, the smaller the tomatoes.” Syngenta developed a new seed combining a gene that grew fatter tomatoes with another that bred deeper roots, producing a new hybrid plant that scores on both counts.

As in medicine, therapies for crop protection fall into two categories: small-molecule chemicals and biologics, made from plants, insects, and other natural sources. Until recently, biologics played only a small role in preventing diseases and in killing weeds and insects. “Biologics were used sparingly in the past to increase yield, but now those products are used in crop protection,” says Fyrwald. “Because they’re viewed as better for the environment than chemicals, their sales are growing in double digits, though from a small base.” He adds that biologics provide advantages lacking in chemicals. Notably, spraying them on plants or putting them into the ground enriches the soil with microbes that act as agricultural vitamins enhancing growth.

Using more biologics, he says, enables farmers to lighten up on chemicals. “Biologics win wider acceptance from governments and NGOs,” says Fyrwald. Nevertheless, using a combination of biologics and chemicals is the best formula for both keeping yields high and protecting the environment. “We accept that it’s good for the world to use less chemical additives,” he says. Small amounts of chemicals are going a longer and longer way, he adds. “Over the past 60 years, the amount of chemicals used to produce the same volume of crops has dropped by 95%.”

A good example delivering more bang per bottle is the new fungicide Adepidyn. “It’s a synthetic we launched recently that’s already on its way to becoming a billion-dollar product,” says Fyrwald. “It protects [against] diseases such as blight that can destroy corn, peanuts, and many, many other crops, using 20% less liquid than the products it’s replacing.”

Low-till or no-till

For Fyrwald, farming that uses just enough chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to do the job, complemented by biologics, is a far greener practice than going all-out organic. “Organic farmers need to keep plowing the tilling the soil over to kill weeds,” says Fyrwald. “The more farmers plow over the fields, the more CO2 gets released. The heavy use of tractors also increases CO2 emissions from burning diesel fuel.” In no-till, the leftover part of the crops become compost that holds carbon in the soil, as well as proving nutrients as they decay.

Gates—America’s biggest owner of farmland—acknowledges that organic farming is more harmful to the environment than conventional farming. Asked by Rashida Jones on a December 2020 podcast, “Does eating organic help [reduce emissions]?” Gates replied, “No, organic produce requires more land than typical farming techniques. I know that’s not a popular answer.” Jones riposted, “Hard take, Bill!”

Fyrwald says that organic farmers use 30% to 35% more land to produce the same volume of crops. That’s because the constant tilling is a lot less effective than using chemicals to kill weeds and insects. Hence, acre yields are a lot lower on organic farms than on those treated with chemical pesticides.

He maintains that organic pesticides aren’t improving, so farmers need to use a lot of them while also “plowing over the fields more and more times.” By contrast, chemical treatments are constantly providing more protection in smaller doses. In no-till, it’s essential that farmers use chemicals and biologics for killing weeds that would otherwise overwhelm the farm.

Organic’s high cost and heavy carbon footprint are starting to erode its appeal among farmers, says Fyrwald. “A New Zealand organic apple orchard owner came to Basel,” says Fyrwald. “He said that he had to make so many passes over the fields and use so much organic pesticide that he went away from organic. He decided that organic practices didn’t help the environment.”

The alt-meat crowd

Fyrwald is heartened that the plant-based meat industry is embracing farming that uses chemicals for crop protection. “Impossible [Foods] makes alternative meat products for chains such as Burger King and White Castle,” he says. “It’s loved by people who are fanatical about the environment like Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, and Ellen DeGeneres.” Singer Katy Perry is an investor, and its charismatic founder, Pat Brown, is a hero of the green movement. “It has a cult green following,” says Fyrwald. “But Brown has come out in favor of technology that uses modern seeds and herbicides as a way to grow the soybeans used in the burgers.”

In an article from 2019, Brown wrote that Impossible was facing a shortage of soy because it relied on farms that didn’t use genetically modified seeds. The reason: Non-modified seed wasn’t nearly as resistant to disease, lowering output and forcing farmers to use far more herbicide.

Brown found that going with genetically modified crops provided both the extra supply he needed, and gave burgers the “beefy texture” his fans craved. “The safest and most environmentally friendly option to allow us to scale up production and provide the Impossible Burger to consumers at the lowest possible cost is GM soy,” he said. Brown also noted the danger of constantly tilling the soil, as opposed to judicious use of chemicals, to control weeds. “Tillage drives carbon loss,” he wrote.

For Fyrwald, the Impossible endorsement is evidence that “people are taking a fresh look at the science around the agricultural technology that helps feed the world and also addresses climate change.”

A tour of your tomatoes

For Fyrwald, the rise of a new chain of garden centers in China trumpets a trend toward empowering consumers to decide for themselves what practices are healthiest and best for the environment. These MAP-brand outlets are full-service centers that sell fertilizer, seeds, and pesticides and dispense agronomic advice and training. Consumers can also buy MAP food products at big chains such as Alibaba.

When a customer purchases a box of strawberries, he or she can scan a QR code next to the MAP logo, using their cell phone. Up pop pictures of the farm where the strawberries were grown as well as photos of the farmers. Customers learn the day the strawberries were picked and get data on the sustainability of the farm’s practices. Fyrwald says it’s all part of a new trend toward “the traceability of food.”

Folks would be voting for the best practices with their dollars or yuan. Think of it as shopping right from the farm—only updated for the digital age.

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