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CEO Dialogue Series

Syngenta’s Fyrwald: A CEO on the faultline of geopolitics and farming

17 October 2023 in CEO Dialogue SeriesPodcast availablePodcast available

Regenerative agriculture techniques are vital to improve the resilience of crops and help farmers achieve humanity’s dual objective of growing more food using less land, the CEO of Syngenta says....

Regenerative agriculture techniques are vital to improve the resilience of crops and help farmers achieve humanity’s dual objective of growing more food using less land, the CEO of the Swiss agriculture group tells IMD President Jean-François Manzoni, as he advocates for carbon labeling on produce. 

As CEO of leading global agriculture company Syngenta Group, Erik Fyrwald operates on the frontline of one of the biggest dilemmas facing the world: how to feed ourselves without destroying the planet. 

With the global population expected to increase by two billion people over the next 30 years, ensuring food security has become a critical issue. Farmers are already grappling with extreme weather events – from droughts and floods to high winds – which are destroying crops. At the same time, there is mounting pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of the agriculture sector which accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

Complicating matters further is the growing antagonism between the United States and China – something Fyrwald, an American, who heads up the Chinese-owned agricultural technology company, feels acutely. 

“If we want to assure food security for the world and have agriculture go from 22% of greenhouse gas emissions toward zero, collaboration between China and the US and the world on agriculture is really important,” he says. “And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have a base of relationships between countries, at least in agriculture; a healthy, positive, ‘let’s solve this’ relationship.” 

Fortunately, Fyrwald possesses a pragmatic ‘can do’ attitude. He took over as CEO in 2016, a year before the Swiss company was sold to ChemChina for $43 billion after turning down a hostile bid from US rival Monsanto. Since the takeover, Fyrwald has made collaboration a key tenet of his strategy, frequently traveling from Basel to China, Africa, and the United States to build relationships with governments, NGOs, and other eco-system stakeholders to help farmers produce more food from less land.  

A long-time executive at rival DuPont, the role is Fyrwald’s third stint as a CEO – having previously headed up Nalco, a water treatments, products, and services company, and Univar, a distributor of chemistry and related services. Syngenta Group, with annual revenues of $33.4 billion and a global workforce of 59,000 across more than 100 countries, is a significantly more complex beast, not least due to the worsening geopolitical climate. 

Every other month or so, I spend a few days in Washington or someplace in the United States, talking to people, explaining what Syngenta is, explaining how we are run. Because if an American politician hears from somebody else that Syngenta is a Chinese-owned company, they immediately think: ‘Oh, well, we don’t want them to own land here. We don’t want them to be part of the US food system,’” he explains.  

Given the rising acrimony between the US and China, with tit-for-tat trade tariffs, tech rivalry, and allegations of spying, Fyrwald spends a lot of time trying to restore trust.  

“It has to be person to person, with trust that we are Americans who care about American farmers, as well as global citizens who care about the world,” he says. 

Despite this and other challenges to the global food system thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Fyrwald still loves his job because he is driven by purpose. “I wake up every morning thankful that I’m part of a team of 59,000 people that collaborates with NGOs, governments, and other companies to help serve farmers around the world. I think that’s really important.” 

Empowering farmers to increase yields 

A case in point is China, where Syngenta Group’s sales have rocketed to $7.7 billion from just $300 million since the ChemChina takeover. One major advantage of the deal, according to Fyrwald, was opening up access to China, the world’s most populous country where the amount of arable land available was shrinking due to harmful practices depleting the soil. “I believed that this acquisition could give us the chance to learn how to better play in China and help transform Chinese agriculture.” 

Syngenta created the Modern Agriculture Platform (MAP) initiative – a network of more than 700 centers spread across China where on-the-ground agronomists teach farmers how to analyze their soil health and better protect their crops to produce higher yields. 

MAP is a model Syngenta now hopes to repeat in Africa. Despite agriculture being the number one employer on the continent, farming is not very productive, meaning Africa still imports around $40 billion of food each year. Syngenta’s aim is to help Africa feed its fast-growing population itself, and sees collaboration between companies, governments, and NGOs as critical.  

Soilless culture of vegetables under artificial light
“I think it's really important for the future of the world – given the existential threat of climate change – that we have carbon labeling on foods to help the world understand the carbon footprint of various agricultural practices.”
- Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta

Fyrwald cites the example of MAP in Tanzania, partnering with Singapore-based food processing company Wilmar which used to import rice into Tanzania for local processing before exporting it again. Following a collaboration with Wilmar, Syngenta, the Tanzanian government, and fertilizer producer Yara, local farmers have succeeded in doubling their yields. This productivity increase has helped Wilmar triple the amount of rice it sources locally to 300,000 tons while also increasing prices for Tanzania’s farmers. 

“This kind of model, the collaboration between companies, downstream inputs, and the government, bringing solutions to farmers, and then giving them a market for it. That’s how we will lift up African agriculture,” says Fyrwald. 

A shift to regenerative agriculture 

Another solution to the tension between food security and climate change is regenerative agriculture, an approach combining the best from “traditional” practices and modern technologies to increase the productivity and profitability of farming while nurturing and protecting the health of the soil and hence its mid- and long-term productivity.  

Many regenerative farming concepts, such as rotating crops to add minerals back into the soil and growing cover crops to stop the wind from eroding the soil during winter, trace their roots to ancient farming practices. Others such as no-till farming to prevent the loss of organic matter and keep carbon in the soil require modern technology. “When you do all these things, you dramatically reduce the greenhouse gases, and as the soil gets richer you increase the yields and the resilience to weather extremes,” he says. 

Syngenta Group spends $2 billion each year on R&D and Fyrwald has been outspoken on the need for the world to use genetically modified crops to ensure an effective and efficient food supply. GMOs are already used heavily in major agricultural countries but are still frowned upon in Europe. European regulators are being more encouraging with gene editing. Simply put, genetically modified seeds involve adding a specific stretch of DNA into the plant’s genome, giving it new or different characteristics. Gene editing is a simpler procedure involving the manipulation of the plant’s genes, a process that Fyrwald describes as “accelerated evolution” since the gene that is modified would modify naturally over time.  

European regulators are also very supportive of organic agriculture, a trend that Fyrwald can relate to, but which he argues is not a scalable approach for the world. “We do sell organic pesticides, so from our point of view increasing organic agriculture is not a commercial problem. But studies clearly show that, on average, organic practices have about 30-35% lower yields. So, to produce the same amount of food, you need 30-35% more land. And because you are plowing and going over the fields more, in many cases, there’s significantly more greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.  

He believes one way to foster more acceptance of regenerative agricultural practices is to create more transparency about the emissions produced by agriculture by introducing carbon labeling for food. I think it’s really important for the future of the world – given the existential threat of climate change – that we have carbon labeling on foods to help the world understand the carbon footprint of various agricultural practices.” 

Watch the full discussion to hear more from Erik Fyrwald on how regulation must change to help the world transition to lower carbon agriculture, the importance of developing an ecosystem approach relying on multi-stakeholder partnerships, and how he maintains himself at peak performance while running a global company. 


Erik Fyrwald

CEO of Syngenta

Erik Fyrwald is an American businessman and Chief Executive Officer of the Syngenta Group. He serves as executive director of the board of directors and chairman of the Syngenta Foundation.

Jean-François Manzoni

Jean-François Manzoni

IMD President

Jean-François Manzoni is the President of IMD, where he also serves as the Nestlé Professor. His research, teaching, and consulting activities are focused on leadership, the development of high-performance organizations and corporate governance.

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