rural farm buildings in Thailand across from a cleared hillside
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Is Swiss Agrochem Giant “like a devil”?

Some people think of Syngenta as the “devil incarnate.” They’re the 2nd largest makers of neonics, the pesticide that some think may be responsible for killing bees.

Yet they have some great programs in place to support biodiversity and pollinator habitat.

Wearing a Pleasant Mask?

The Good Growth Plan—partners with farmers and commercial turf managers to create more biodiversity, by showing them how to plant the un-used, or un-manicured, corners of their fields with pollinator plants—to provide bees with more diverse food sources.

Picture the circular irrigation sprinklers that slowly move around the fields, leaving triangle-shaped corners to grow wild. Syngenta shows farmers how to plant those corners with pollinator-friendly flowering plants.

Some large-scale commercial growers, like Pheasant Forever and Applewood, planted triangle-shaped fields near public access so that the pollinators get multiple opportunities for food foraging.

Syngenta’s goal is to get over 1000 acres pollinator-friendly within the next 5 years. As they say on their website: “Syngenta is committed to promoting and protecting bee health.” But, personally, I don’t think 1000 acres sounds like very much, when you consider worldwide needs.

Vague Videos

And it isn’t, which is why the project above is actually part of a much larger global-initiative, which …”has committed to enhance biodiversity on more than 12 million acres of farmland worldwide by 2020.”

That’s more like it. Again, it’s the un-irrigated triangles and un-manicured portions of commercial lawns they are focusing on.

They also state a clear commitment “to improve the fertility of 10 million hectares of farmland on the brink of degradation.” “Since the launch of The Good Growth Plan, [they’ve] exceeded their 2020 target, benefiting 10.8 million hectares of land—roughly the size of Guatemala.” All sounds good. Except a video on their website, interviewing a Hungarian farmer about his partnership with Syngenta, is surprisingly vague—mentioning no details at all.

Worldwide Presence

However, digging a little deeper into a review of their plans for coffee plantations in Vietnam, they say they “aim to train some 2,500 farmers and agronomists on sustainability issues, eliminating overuse and unsafe use of pesticides.” Clearly they are on the side of the argument that neonics-coated seeds can be safely used—if used properly.

Do they explain any specifics about their support for biodiversity and bee populations? Yes…in fact…one article on their site explains how they are helping kiwi orchards in China improve their yields “with a program to support bee pollination.” The article explains that “female kiwi flowers are not naturally attractive to bees…” So why are they trying to make bees pollinate kiwis? It seemed odd…yet the Chinese kiwi growers are happy with the results.

A Venetian Masked Ball?

So, why do some people consider them to be the devil? Are they playing the ancient Venetian masked ball game, in which you can get away with anything because you won’t get caught?

The suspicions about Syngenta started with a scientist they hired in the late 90’s to study atrazine—the pesticide used to coat corn seeds. The scientist’s findings, not surprisingly, weren’t what the company wanted to hear. That was when the scientist, Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley, claimed multiple instances of harassment that went on for years—and other scientists concurred that they had also received similar treatment.

aerial view of colorful farm fields with shrub and tree borders, windmills in the distance

Could the same thing be going on with neonics? Perhaps—though this reporter has not found any evidence of it. The public now knows that Exxon/Mobil worked diligently to discredit climate-change science reports—with some success. It does seem to be the common method that PR professionals use—discredit the speaker’s methods—and sometimes, the speaker himself. It was the tack taken against Hayes.

The good news for biodiversity is that as of May 20, 2019, the U.S. EPA has cancelled the registration “of a dozen pesticides, from a class of chemicals known to harm bees. The cancellations are effective as of May 20, 2019 for 12 products produced by Syngenta, Valent, and Bayer.”

The Syngenta PR Machine

Syngenta’s response is politically correct: “’After five years of litigation, this settlement represents a positive outcome in the interest of all parties. The terms clearly support America’s farmers while ensuring continued protection of the environment.’

They continue “…According to Syngenta, any move to further restrict access to neonicotinoids risks harming farmers by removing one of their most widely used insecticides.”

Clearly, their PR team is communicating with the public in the way that public relations professionals do–by stating the positive and supporting their customers—the farmers.

It’s up to us to understand how the game is played. The large companies work to protect their livelihood in three ways: 1. To support their customers, in this case farmers; 2. To develop new products and retire old ones—usually done out of the public eye; 3. To present a positive public face to outsiders.

We can see this all going on with Syngenta. For me, when a company’s PR feels obvious, I get uncomfortable. But the “devil incarnate” description seems extreme.

What do you think? Share your ideas below.

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