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Syngenta’s Mary-Dell Chilton is Retiring

This founder of modern biotechnology is a 2013 World Food Prize Laureate.

"Go ahead, stand next to her and I’ll get your picture,” said an agricultural journalist buddy of mine while we were attending a Syngenta event at the firm’s Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, facilities in 2006.

“Sure,” I mumbled, as I tried to make sense of my notes and figure out my new digital camera as I stood next to a pleasant woman with a nice smile. My colleague emailed the photo to me a few days later and I filed it in a desktop folder on my laptop with a burning question: “Who is she?”

Over the next few years, I periodically wondered about it before moving on to another task. One day, though, I looked through some old notes and found a hastily scribbled “Chilton” across one page. A web search showed that my not knowing who Mary-Dell Chilton was is akin to a football fan getting a selfie with and not knowing who Tom Brady, the All-Pro New England Patriots quarterback, is.

Biotechnology Champion

The celebrated scientist Mary-Dell Chilton is retiring after a 35-year career at Syngenta. Chilton, named a World Food Prize Laureate in 2013, is a founder of modern plant biotechnology. She and her research team demonstrated that Agrobacterium is an effective vehicle for DNA transfer to produce the first transgenic plant.

Syngenta officials say her work in academia and the private sector ultimately led to the development and commercialization of biotech crops. They add that these crops have helped farmers effectively manage damaging insects, disease complexes, weed pressure, and abiotic stress — resulting in greater yields, profitability, and efficiency

“Few have made as indelible a mark on our industry and society as Mary-Dell Chilton,” says Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of global seeds research, Syngenta. “Her curiosity, innovation, and hard work helped usher in a new era in agriculture. During her 35 years with Syngenta and a legacy company, she shaped our biotech seeds research program into the robust R&D engine it is today, and she will forever be part of the Syngenta family.”

Biotechnology Metrics

While it is difficult to quantify the extent of Chilton’s contributions, the productivity and economic success of biotech crops are staggering. On average, biotech crop adoption has:

  • Increased crop yields by 22%
  • Reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%
  • Increased farmer profits by 68%  

A recent economic impact study reports that the financial benefit of biotech crops at the farm level globally was $18.2 billion in 2016 alone — and as much as $186.1 billion for the period between 1996 and 2016. Chilton’s significant contributions to agriculture have resulted in numerous accolades, including the prestigious World Food Prize in 2013 — the definitive international award recognizing individuals who have “increased the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.”

Beyond her professional and scientific achievements, Chilton mentored and supported countless students and colleagues throughout her tenure, nurturing talent, and encouraging further contributions to agriculture and life sciences.

I’ll keep that photo of me with her for the rest of my life. How often does one get to be in a photo like that? It’s akin to a football fan standing alongside Tom Brady or a basketball fan standing next to LeBron James.

You may find more information about Mary-Dell Chilton here.

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