November 30, 2022

Committed to innovation, making farmers better

NEW ORLEANS — Research and development, partnerships and digital solutions continue to be at the forefront for Syngenta Crop Protection.

“We continue to be committed to innovation and helping bring products that make farmers better at what they do,” Vern Hawkins, Syngenta Crop Protection president, said at a media summit hosted by the company.

“Being an R&D company, new products are probably our most significant and consistent growth engine. We have a very strong portfolio and a very good pipeline, a couple of reduced risk products in the agency right now which we hope to get registered in the next couple of seasons.”

The company also focuses on partnership and utilizes a targeted retail strategy.

“We like to work with folks that are like-minded around the business objectives they want to achieve to bring value to growers. We do that for a number of reasons,” Hawkins said.

“One is we need the reach that retailers provide in the U.S. market for different segments of growers, and so part of our contract with the channel is to bring down a brand ladder which has appeal to the different segments of growers that they serve. We try to support them with the agronomics or the economics or whatever it is that that particular segment that they serve needs.”

In the digital solutions space, a whole-farm management program, AgriEdge, has been a part of Syngenta’s portfolio for over 20 years.

“That platform represents about 30% of our branded business today in crop protection. There are some seed portfolio products that growers engage with through that platform, as well, but we’ve been building the value through that return-on-investment-minded,” Hawkins said.

“So, it’s really about helping growers use their own data to make better decisions on their farms with their data, and ROI has been a big part of how we approach the market for decades.”

Regulatory issues continue to be challenging for agriculture companies.

“Regulatory is always at the top of the list, but we have a very capable science regulatory team. It’s one of our competitive advantages with very qualified people in the science space and you need that in a company today when you look at what’s going on around the world and the U.S. in regulatory challenges,” Hawkins said.

Following his opening remarks, the Syngenta Crop Protection president held a Q&A session with the media.

On Sept. 29, the Federal Trade Commission and 10 states announced a lawsuit against Syngenta and Corteva alleging the “loyalty” programs coerce distributors and retailers not to buy generic products or it acts as a “payoff” to exclude generic entrants. Can you comment on that?

Hawkins: The complaints the FTC filed are contrary to the facts and the law. We will object strongly and defend ourselves in court. We’ve publicly said there’s no merit to the case.

We don’t typically talk about active litigation, but we felt we needed to in this case for one primary reason. After the FTC filed the complaint, the head of the FTC chose to do an op-ed in the Des Moines Register which arguably is the beginning of swaying public opinion before the actual case has been heard.

We didn’t feel like that was appropriate and when you see political statements laced through that article around the cost of food being impacted by a piece of our program offer which we’ve been doing for 20 years, you have to wonder what’s the objective here.

The other thing that I thought was a little bit interesting is it made reference to farmers charging higher prices because of a program like this. I don’t know many farmers who get to set the price.

It was unfortunate that they didn’t see that a discount offer, which is what this particular piece of our program is, provides an incentive and therefore lowers price to people that choose to reach those goals was seen as something opposite of that which is what they petitioned.

So, a couple of weeks ago I sent a letter to all of our customers which confirmed two things. One was that we would defend ourselves and that the program will remain active while we defend ourselves, and two was a little background I just shared with you and an offer that if retailers felt the need to share that letter with customers that they could do so.

Those are steps that we wouldn’t typically take in an active complaint or litigation, but we felt we needed to because the FTC for whatever reason has chosen to enter into the space of swaying public opinion. We don’t think there’s any merit and we will carry on running our business because we’re confident in our position.

Do other companies have similar programs?

Hawkins: Yes, most competitors have a program like it. They reference it as a loyalty program. While we won’t see all the terms of what they do, most companies have a loyalty program with a similar incentive focus.

Over the past couple of years, trial bar attorneys have heavily advertised for claimants that alleged paraquat exposure has caused Parkinson’s disease. There are now hundreds of claimants in both federal and state class action lawsuits and can you comment on that?

Hawkins: This has been running a lot longer than the FTC case. Paraquat is a product that’s been in our portfolio for decades. We’ve always done active testing related to the safety of the product and there are a number of studies internal and external that verifies that.

The Agricultural Health Study is probably one of the most notable third-party studies with a U.S. and Australia opinion that the product is completely safe. So, science is a really important point that we continue to push.

The other thing we’ve done is refreshed the studies that we do internally. We’ve done another Parkinson’s sampling study with our plant workers and there’s no difference in the percentage of Parkinson’s in the broader population than there is in our plant population. These are some of the things that are often done to correlate some of the scientific data related to safety.

We’re actively defending our position there. The litigators have been promoting farmers to get involved or people that have used paraquat and have Parkinson’s. They’ve probably spent their $25 million trying to get people to join.

So, there is a lot of noise whether you’re talking print or television which will likely continue until some decision is made about what the next steps in the case are. Some of this you can probably connect to opportunistic following through related to other cases that have happened.

We have a very strong scientific position with over 1,000 studies of safety and scientific data to back up our position, but this is one that’s got a lot more attention from the litigators that are trying to generate business.

It’s unfortunate that our industry has found themselves in this new challenge with some of the settlements that have occurred in other compounds, but it’s part of doing business right now which is very unfortunate related to the resourcing that’s required if you’re going to protect yourself.

We have used Gramoxone which is our brand for paraquat extensively. It continues to grow in importance, especially when you look at no-till and the practices that are very popular now that are related to conservation ag and everything related to soil health and so forth. So, it does have a very important fit with the grower, as well.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor