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How Syngenta is defining the future of biologicals

Launched more than 40 years ago, Valagro is an Italian company that was ahead of its time. Specializing in biostimulants and micronutrients, it pioneered products to increase the quality and quantity of crops naturally. Acquired by Syngenta in October 2020, the investment positions Syngenta Crop Protection as one of the key global companies poised to shape the biological market.

“Climate change is upon us. It's been building for years, and it's only getting more intense,” says Corey Huck, Global Head of Syngenta Biologicals. “The Yangtze River in China is at an all-time low due to drought. There is a 500-year drought across Europe. Temperatures are soaring. In the United States, Texas is in a 1,000-year drought, while fires in California are abundant.”

Syngenta believes it is in a unique position globally to make an impact on the way farmers produce food. Number one in crop protection and number three in seeds, the company is now number one in biologicals with the acquisition of Valagro.

Currently, there are approximately 500 biological companies, many of which are regional. About a $4 billion market today, Huck says biologicals are growing at around 9% to 10% annually. The sector is predicted to reach over $10 billion by 2030.

“Biologicals are not new. They were used long before synthetic chemistries. What’s different now is the application of science,” Huck says. “The question we need to answer is how do we meet consumer demand with a more sustainable crop and more sustainable food?”

It all begins with the soil, ensuring farmers are adopting practices that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil. 

“Regenerative agriculture is receiving a lot of attention,” he says. “It is also an area Syngenta has spent a lot of time and effort on and will continue to invest in. We are working with others along the entire food value chain to clearly define what the fundamental principles of regenerative agriculture are, so it is more consistent.”

Biologicals is a key part of those principles.

“If we really want to be part of regenerative ag and the next generation of where agriculture is going, biologicals must play a large part in how we do this,” Huck says. “We searched the globe to find a company that was the best in the business. It did not take long to figure out that Valagro aligned well with what Syngenta wanted to accomplish. It has developed a very science-based approach to biologicals, and we believe that's what the fundamental difference is.”

The company’s commercial modeling also aligned with Syngenta.

“If you're going to talk to a grower about biologicals, it's a different conversation than seeds and synthetic crop protection,” he says. “It's more agronomic and consultative. This is an important part of what the team at Valagro built – how it engages with a grower, so he understands the product, so the right expectations are set on how it's going to work, and so he uses it the right way.”

That knowledge also includes helping a farmer understand that the use of biologicals doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. The products, Huck says, are a third option where a producer can use a combination of synthetic crop protection and biologicals that complement one another.

Defining Biologicals

Derived and inspired by nature for protecting and strengthening plants, biologicals can be broken down into two categories: biocontrols and biostimulants.

Biocontrols are products based on naturally occurring materials and are used for biotic stress management. Biostimulants are applied to plants to stimulate natural processes. They are used for abiotic stress management and nutrient use efficiency.

One of the best ways to think about biologicals, Huck says, is to talk about human health. In this area, most of the effort has been spent on biotic controls (e.g., medicines, vaccines, etc.). Basically, how we address what’s ailing us. When you get sick, you get a shot or take medicine.

“Over the years, human health has transitioned to health and wellness. How do we have a healthier body? What can we do to make our body more resilient against disease?” he says. 

Syngenta is applying that same principle to plants. 

“Rather than always worrying about fungicide, insecticide, or weed control, why don't we also make the plant healthier to stave off some of those challenges and abiotic stresses?” Huck says. “Because they are about taking a plant's natural mechanisms and enhancing those to fight off abiotic stresses, it’s where biostimulants come in. It could be heat, salinity, or nutrient use efficiency, which is a new and interesting area where a lot of science is happening.”

It all starts with Valagro’s unique platform GeaPower, which is a systematic approach for developing and producing biostimulants. It leverages a combination of technologies, processes, know-how, and trade secret knowledge.

“The best raw materials from plants are selected, and their active natural ingredients are identified and extracted,” says Camilla Corsi, Head CP Research at Syngenta. “Then they are carefully combined in products specifically designed for feeding a particular crop. All this research is about establishing a fingerprint of our technology.”

When it comes to biologicals, it’s also why field trials are a critical component to development. 

“Biologicals need to be tailored to a lot of differing conditions and agronomic practices,” Corsi says. “We have fields in more than 80 countries where we conduct over 15,000 trials across different crops and different geographies, with different technologies.”

Generating more than 20 million data points yearly, the information being generated is used to create predictive models that can provide tailored solutions field by field.

“It’s like precision pharma for each one of our growers,” she says.  

With a vast network of crop protection research and development sites across the globe, ensuring farmers have the right tools is also a journey Syngenta doesn’t want to take alone.

“We really want to be a collaborator of choice,” Corsi says. “We are currently managing more than 500 collaborations across the globe.”

For example, Syngenta is not only collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on soil health initiatives, but it is also working with French company M2i on the next generate of pheromones as well as Israeli company Greeneye Technology on how to precisely apply products.

“Precision application will be key for biological technology, because we need to apply the products in a different way, ensuring they are applied at the right rate, at the right time, in the right order,” Corsi says.

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