The world is likely to face food shortages within 20 years if pesticides and genetically modified crops are shunned, according to the head of the world’s biggest pesticide manufacturer.
J Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, also said the technologies to produce more food from less land are vital in halting climate change, but that better targeting will mean farmers around the world will use less pesticide in future.
The widespread use of pesticides is coming under increasing pressure as their negative effects on bees and other wildlife become more apparent. The EU banned neonicotinoid insecticides from fields in April and gave the weedkiller glyphosate a shorter renewal period than expected in November.
In an interview with the Guardian, Fyrwald said that shunning agricultural technology will have serious consequences, with the global population expected to rise by 1.5 billion people by 2050 and global warming continuing to rise.
“If we don’t keep getting better with technology that helps feed the world with less greenhouse gas emissions, I think we are going to have food availability issues and the climate is going to get much worse from agriculture,” he said. “There could very well be, 10 to 20 years from now, significant issues around feeding the world.”
The necessity of pesticides has been challenged by a series of recent reports, with a UN study calling the idea that pesticides are vital to feeding the world a “myth”, a scientific study showing many farms could slash pesticides use without losses and another warning that their industrial-scale use cannot be assumed to be safe.
Fyrwald does not agree, but does say farmers will use less pesticide in future: “Absolutely, and they are going to do it because [of] new technologies that are more targeted. Digital technology is going to enable precision agriculture, where it will be spraying much more at where the weeds, insects and diseases are.
“We believe in strict [pesticide] regulation, but it needs to be science-based and regulators need to be independent,”said Fyrwald. “If they make a decision that a product is not right, we fully accept that decision and move on.”
However, Fyrwaldsaid the EU ban of Syngenta’s neonicotinoid was “very political” and not scientific, and the company has mounted a legal challenge against the way the decision was made: “We are not anti-democratic, but in a democracy the regulators have a job.” Nonetheless, he does accept public trust in pesticides is a problem: “I do think there is a trust issue – I think we have to listen more, engage more.”
Syngenta has been criticised for selling some pesticides long banned in Europe, such as paraquat and atrazine, in other parts of the world. But Fyrwald says they remain approved in countries with “very high standards”, such as Brazil and the US.
Syngenta is also a major seed producer but has given up on genetically modified crops in Europe, where public opposition remains high. “It is something we are not even attempting to work on any more,” says Fyrwald. The consequence for the EU of eschewing the technology will be it becoming a net importer of food, he says: “Agricultural outputs will not keep up with the rest of the world.”
Syngenta was bought a year ago by the Chinese government, through the state-owned company ChemChina, and other major seed and pesticide companies have recently merged: Bayer with Monsanto and Dow with DuPont.
This leaves about two-thirds of the world’s seed sales and pesticide production in the hands of very few businesses, but Fyrwald said people should not be concerned, saying regulators required various divisions to be sold off before the mergers: “I think there will continue to be plenty of competition. We are very committed to offering farmers choice and competitive products.”
China, which has 21% of the world’s population but only 6% of its arable land, bought Syngenta to help ensure its people remain fed in the coming decades, Fyrwald said: “President Xi Jinping grew up during the [Great Leap Forward] , when farming failed and 35 million Chinese people starved to death. So I don’t think he and others in his senior leadership will ever forget that. Assurance of food supply is a big deal for the Chinese.”
“The Chinese government wanted to make sure we continued to invest in the technologies that are going to help to absolutely assure there is always plenty of food for the Chinese people,” he said. China is also a major food importer, and so needs global agriculture to be productive as well, Fyrwald says.
Agriculture must also improve to tackle global warming, Fyrwald says, with the sector responsible for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, from deforestation, fertiliser use and livestock. “How can deforestation stop? By having less land in agriculture not more, and you can do that with technology,” he says, arguing that organic farming is a “great marketing approach” but delivers low yields.
How the world feeds itself without destroying the environment remains one of the biggest questions of the age, but there is little agreement on the answer. Fyrwald says: “I think the most important thing that we do here is open up a conversation with government, NGOs, food companies, consumers and farmers and get people to sit down and talk about what is sustainable agriculture.”