Agriculture needs new technologies
The authorities seem to have recognized the need to make better technologies available to farmers, so that they can cope effectively with climate change and the increase in extreme events. Switzerland should not miss the opportunity to play an important role in this field and make a valuable contribution to food security.
Monday, December 6, 2021
This guest commentary by Erik Fyrwald, CEO Syngenta Group, was first published in Le Temps on 25 August.
Climate change, geopolitical conflicts, rising energy and fertilizer prices are putting farmers around the world under pressure. They need to increase production and efficiency to guarantee food security while reducing their impact on the environment. According to the United Nations, over 800 million people already no longer have access to healthy, affordable food, and the number of people severely impacted by food insecurity has doubled since 2020 to 345 million. At the same time, climate change is causing average temperatures to rise steadily. Droughts and other extreme phenomena are becoming even more frequent, allowing pests and diseases to establish themselves in new regions.
Farmers are doing their best to achieve good harvests despite these difficult circumstances, but calls for the use of better, innovative science-based agricultural technologies are multiplying. Among the most promising is genome editing, led by the CRISPR-Cas method, introduced in 2012 and known as «genetic scissors».
This Nobel Prize-winning technology has long been sidelined. But things are changing: last July, the European Commission announced a revision of its regulations on New Breeding Techniques (NTS) in agriculture. In Switzerland, parliament has instructed the Federal Council to present, by mid-2024 at the latest, draft legislation for risk-based authorization regulations for NTS-derived plants in which no transgenic genetic material has been inserted.
Many farmers agree that access to new technologies is necessary to meet growing challenges. Improved plant varieties deliver higher yields, greater resistance to extreme weather and pests, and healthier soils. They also improve the taste of food and extend shelf life, to the benefit of consumers.
The NTS regulation proposed by the European Commission confirms that genome editing has the potential to deliver these improvements. In the meantime, breeders are producing crops with longer roots that allow sufficient hydration even in prolonged drought, and that help resist violent storms or floods. New hybrid wheat varieties, made more tolerant to extreme climatic stress, have been shown to yield up to 10% more under comparable conditions. In theory, these achievements could also be developed by traditional breeding over a longer period, but NTS enable them to be developed in just a few years. They are an essential resource if we are to achieve our objectives now.
Some fear that companies and research institutes will systematically patent their inventions. In reality, the situation is similar to that of traditional breeding: neither Switzerland nor the EU issues patents on plant varieties. Nor can a plant's properties be patented if they are the result of traditional breeding methods. The cultivation of old varieties using traditional methods is simply not concerned. Only the use of the latest inventions for commercial purposes is subject to licensing.
The new directives proposed by the European Commission to regulate NTS represent a welcome turning point in the political discussions to date. I hope that the Federal Council's proposal will be in line with this development - even though Syngenta no longer carries out breeding activities in Switzerland. As a research and production company, we have a vested interest in ensuring that the environment is conducive to technology, and that Switzerland regains its leading position in a field as important as biotechnology.
Authorization rules for genetically modified crops are being relaxed in a growing number of countries. Research activities are increasing, offering market opportunities and amounting to a growing «democratization» of plant breeding. The authorities seem to have recognized the need to make better technologies available to farmers, so that they can cope effectively with climate change and the increase in extreme events. Switzerland should not miss the opportunity to play an important role in this field and make a valuable contribution to food security.
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Journalist, publicist, publisher and historian
Head of Knowledge Team Tamedia
Babette Sigg Frank
President of the Swiss Consumer Forum (KF)
Country President Syngenta Switzerland
Journalist at Lebensmittel Zeitung
Development Editor-in-Chief Agrar-Medien
“Ecological methods alone won’t cut it”
Columnist at Genetic Literacy Project and AGDaily
CEO Syngenta Group
President of Syngenta Crop Protection
Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine
Professor of Crop Science, ETH Zurich
Head of Biotechnology at Scienceindustries
Lecturer in Sustainability, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences HAFL
Agricultural scientist and president of Agroecology Science
Professor of Consumer Behaviour, ETH Zurich
Head of Nutrition and Agriculture at scienceindustries
Dr. Teresa Koller
Researcher at the Institute of Plant and Microbiology at the University of Zurich
Professor for Molecular Plant Breeding, ETH Zurich
Editor-in-Chief of «die grüne» magazine
Head of Business Sustainability, Syngenta Switzerland
Vegetable producers are currently struggling. The reason for this is the lack of crop protection products . It is becoming increasingly difficult to bring saleable products onto the market. Some farmers are even reaching their limits to such an extent that they have had to stop growing certain vegetable varieties.
Fruit, berry and wine growing is increasingly threatened by pests such as the Japanese beetle, the spotted wing drosophila and the Mediterranean fruit fly. Producers are sounding the alarm – but there is a lack of pesticides that can put an end to the pests.
The high number of plant protection treatments is a major challenge for organic farmers. One of them is apple grower Marco Messerli from Kirchdorf BE. He has had to treat susceptible apple varieties with organic pesticides a total of 48 times. Too much, he thinks, and is now calling for the authorisation of new breeding methods. Experts agree with him.
The demand for regional products could hardly be greater. This is shown by a new study by the Zurich School of Business. Consumers even consider regional products to be significantly more sustainable than organic or premium products. To keep up with this trend, it is therefore all the more important to promote modern breeding techniques and plant protection products.