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Q&A: Jeff Rowe, global president of Syngenta Crop Protection

Jeff Rowe didn’t know what the future held when he graduated high school.

“I wish I could tell you that I had some grand plan when I graduated from high school, but I really didn't. I just knew that I enjoyed agriculture, wanted to stay close to farming and continue learning,” says Rowe, global president for Syngenta Crop Protection. 

An agricultural economics degree from Iowa State University and a position with Pioneer were the first steps, but Rowe was determined to keep learning.

“I was working in the seed industry, and it was at the time when biotechnology was really starting to gain momentum,” Rowe says. “Being a bit naive, I thought, well, maybe I'll just go do a graduate program in that area. I started taking classes at night and weekends at Iowa State focused on plant biology, with the intent of learning more about biotechnology and how it affects agriculture.” 

Rowe also continued to work in the industry while he obtained a law degree from Drake University in the hopes of better understanding the law and how it can impact agriculture. His varied experiences and lifetime of learning guide Rowe in his career and keep him looking to the future. 

SF: What did you learn as an attorney that helps you today?

JR: While a bit unconventional for a business leader, a legal education is broad and helps develop skills that can be quite useful in business.

Some of the most important decisions I make today involve complex agreements. And while I’m not qualified to draft these documents, I understand enough about legal agreements to ask the right questions and ultimately help me negotiate effective contracts.

Additionally, law school teaches you to look at issues from all sides. I’ve found this skill to be quite useful when forming strategic collaborations. One of the things that we're focused on at Syngenta is being a collaborator of choice. I've found the best way to be a good collaborator is to truly understand what the other side is trying to accomplish. Whether that be an NGO [non-governmental organization], a competitor, or whoever you're talking to, putting yourself in their shoes and really understanding their situation is key. In essence, trying to help solve their problems or their needs as part of a collaboration is something that I try to do all the time.

SF: Where do you see new technologies taking seed development?

JR: One of the great things about our industry is that we are continuously delivering a tremendous amount of innovation to farmers around the world. Some technologies I’m excited about include more advanced plant breeding, data science, and genome editing. It’s important to bring a lot of previous disciplines together and shorten the innovation cycle. Genome editing holds the potential of having lots of benefits, but also a much shorter innovation cycle.

SF: Syngenta has greatly emphasized data science. What has led to those decisions?

JR: Data science is transforming many industries, and agriculture is one of them. Early in my career, plant breeding was almost exclusively people trying different genetic combinations, and then having to physically go to the field to observe the phenotypic results. While field trialing is still an important part of plant breeding, powerful data science tools are now being used to enhance and improve the efficiency, which results in great new products for farmers. 

Beyond the Seeds business, we are using data science to improve many aspects of our Crop Protection business within Syngenta Group. I firmly believe that data science, advanced algorithms and sophisticated models will continue to improve our R&D capabilities.

SF: How do you think that the industry will deal with increasing levels of resistance to crop protection products?

JF: Harmful weeds and crop pests are always evolving, which is why we are so focused bringing new products to market and staying ahead of major resistance issues.  Fortunately, we have many great tools at our disposal. We are using genetic and biotechnology tools on the Seeds side. We also have a fantastic Seedcare business that allows for us to bring chemistry and apply it to the seed. We have a world leading crop protection business and have launched five new AIs in the U.S. in recent years, as well as novel products like VAYANTIS and Saltro.

We have a biologicals business and continue to invest in the space, including through the acquisition of Valagro. So, there are many tools that we can bring to really focus on the problems that really matter to farmers, and certainly resistance is one of them. Fortunately, we're pretty good at being able to identify the risks associated with resistance and then focus our research efforts to be able to try to stay in front of it.

SF: You’ve been vocal about the need for more mental health awareness in agriculture since your brother-in-law’s suicide in 2018. What can farmers learn from your experience? 

JR: This is, of course, a very sensitive and emotional topic for anybody who has been impacted by suicide. What struck me as I started to do some research is just how bad the statistics are for agriculture and for farmers. By some accounts, farming is the highest risk occupation in the United States as far as risk for suicide, around 3.5 times that of the general population.

Farmers, as general rule, are independent thinkers. Farmers are used to solving their own problems. Farmers are highly resilient. These are all great traits, however, when dealing with mental health issues, seeking help is sometimes very hard to do. To me, one of the learnings is that we need to make sure that we are reaching out to people, talking about the issue more openly, and making sure people recognize that it’s OK to not be OK. But what is really important is knowing when to ask for help. It's a journey and one that we should all be aware of because it's a major issue for a growing number of farmers.

SF: You’ve described yourself as a lifelong learner. What are the biggest lessons you've learned?

JR: One, stay humble. Two, stay curious. If you're trying to learn, you can always learn more.

The other thing I would say is that even though that I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of formal education, it is not correlated to intelligence. I firmly believe that you can learn something from anybody and everyone you interact with in almost any situation. Some of the smartest people I know don't have[college] degrees. The ability to go into any relationship or conversation with a way to listen and learn is the right approach. If you have that approach, you're going to be a lifelong long learner.

SF Bio

Background: Rowe grew up on his family farm in north-central Illinois. He started his career at Pioneer, then studied law part-time before working as a corporate attorney. He has held leadership positions all over the world. Starting in 2016, Rowe served as Syngenta Seeds global president before assuming his current role.

Education: He has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State University and a law degree from Drake University.

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