Protesters condemn “cynical” calls for organic farming to be abandoned. Jonathan Matthews reports
On Saturday 21 May several hundred protesters marched through the city of Basel in Switzerland en route to Syngenta’s global HQ. It’s an annual march and the protesters weren’t happy with the company for a good number of reasons, but one of those mentioned most prominently this year was “the cynical statements of Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald, who blames organic farming for the food crisis”.
The protesters were referring to a press interview that the American businessman, who heads the Swiss-based multinational now owned by ChemChina, gave a couple of weeks ago, in which he called for organic farming to be abandoned in order to avoid a global catastrophe.
Fyrwald said that in view of the food crisis, brought on by the war in Ukraine, rich countries had to increase their crop production – but organic farming led to lower yields. “The indirect consequence is that people are starving in Africa, because we are eating more and more organic products,” he claimed.
Fyrwald also claimed organic farming is harmful to the climate because it involves ploughing, which contributes to CO2 emissions. To achieve greater sustainability, Fyrwald said he favoured a form of “regenerative agriculture” which took crop rotation from organic farming and combined it with “the targeted use of pesticides and GMOs to increase yields”. And he called for gene editing to be at the heart of the food agenda in order to enhance food production.
This is not the first time that Fyrwald has promoted GMOs as vital for productivity. In 2017 he warned Europe that its “agricultural outputs will not keep up with the rest of the world” without GMOs. He also claimed the world would face food shortages within 20 years without GMOs and pesticides.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with its disruptions to grain transit and triggering of price speculation, seems to have emboldened Fyrwald’s scaremongering still further.
The president of the Swiss Small Farmers’ Association, Kilian Baumann, called Fyrwald’s arguments “grotesque”. But as we shall see, they’re also fundamentally dishonest and part of a desperate bid to maintain the industry’s profit-driven stranglehold over global food production.
Disaster capitalism in action
That, of course, is not how the CEO of this pesticide and biotech giant sees it. According to newspaper reports, “Fyrwald said his opposition to organic farming was in no way linked to Syngenta's business objectives”.
But Fyrwald’s playbook will be all too familiar to anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, in which she famously coined the term “disaster capitalism” to describe how big business, and its ideological allies, used wars and other crises to try to grab market opportunities that would otherwise face stiff opposition.
To show this process in action, Klein collated contemporary news reports on her Shock Doctrine website, including ones showing how the biotech industry and its supporters were exploiting the 2007–2008 world food crisis to push for the opening of new markets.
Klein’s “disaster capitalism in action” collection included a 2008 report in the International Herald-Tribune, about how rising food prices were leading to demands that regulatory and food industry standards on GMOs be lowered. Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth Europe told the paper, “Where politicians and technocrats have always wanted to push GMOs, they are jumping on this bandwagon and using this as an excuse”.
But, according to the Herald-Tribune, there was one chief executive who was warning his colleagues that the biotech industry should not use the crisis “to push its agenda”. He was Michael Mack, the then CEO of Syngenta.
Why the all-out attack on organic?
Fyrwald’s complete disregard for his predecessor’s warning almost certainly reflects the industry’s determination to undermine the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy, which aims by 2030 not just to slash pesticide use by 50 per cent and fertilizer use by 20 per cent, but to more than triple the percentage of EU farmland under organic management (from 8.1% to 25%), as part of the transition towards a “more sustainable food system” within the EU’s Green Deal.
Understandably, agrichemical multinationals like Syngenta view these goals as an almost existential threat. This has led to a carefully orchestrated attack on the EU strategy. And the details of this PR offensive have been exposed by the Brussels-based lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in its report, A loud lobby for a silent spring: The pesticide industry's toxic lobbying tactics against Farm to Fork.
CEO says that the attacks were initially cloaked in apparent support for the EU’s Green Deal, while industry simultaneously lobbied for elements like new GMOs to be incorporated into Farm to Fork. But the fear of a looming food crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine has led the industry and its political and big farm lobby allies to step up their attacks, in the hope of slowing or even stopping the implementation of Farm to Fork, and in particular any mandatory pesticide reduction targets.
In a tweet, Nina Holland, the author of the CEO report, called Fyrwald’s all-out assault on organic, “The latest, darkest episode in the pesticide industry lobby attack on the EU’s Farm to Fork and pesticide reduction plans.” Syngenta and its allies were fighting “to sustain their toxic profits”, she said, and were no longer bothering to hide behind their “‘We embrace the EU Green Deal’ bullshit”.
Baseless claims: GMOs
Whatever their motivation, Fyrwald’s scaremongering messages have little basis in reality. For instance, his claims that GMOs will increase yields and stop food shortages, and that without them Europe’s food production will lag behind, are not supported by the evidence.
Research that compared decades of FAO data on agricultural productivity in North America, where GM crops have been widely grown, to that for Western Europe, where they have hardly been grown at all, found NO yield benefit from GM crops. In fact, the lead author of the peer-reviewed study, Prof Jack Heinemann, concluded that the data showed, “Europe has learned to grow more food per hectare and use fewer chemicals in the process. The American choices in biotechnology are causing it to fall behind Europe in productivity and sustainability.”
Heinemann’s study is no outlier. Other researchers, including the authors of the 2016 report on GM crops of the US National Academy of Sciences, have similarly found no evidence of significant yield benefits from GMOs.
Baseless claims: Pesticides
Likewise, a just published report, authored by Claire Robinson of GMWatch, draws together an array of research clearly showing GM crops have driven substantial increases – not decreases – in pesticide use, and warns that the newer, and much-hyped, gene-edited crops look set to do the same.
In any case, it’s hard to take Fyrwald’s professed desire to reduce pesticide use seriously when he heads not just one of the world's largest pesticide makers but one of the most controversial. Syngenta is prominent, for instance, among the corporations criticised by a report from the UN for “systematic denial of harms” and “unethical marketing tactics”.
Another report shows that over 40 per cent of Syngenta’s pesticide sales come from “highly hazardous” pesticides, many of them banned in the European Union and/or Syngenta’s home country of Switzerland, but still produced and exported by Syngenta to other countries, often in the Global South. That report concludes that “selling highly hazardous pesticides is actually at the core of Syngenta’s business model” with half of the best sellers in its extensive pesticide portfolio falling into the “highly hazardous” category.
Baseless claims: Organic
Fyrwald’s claim that organic farming is particularly harmful to the climate also runs up against a number of problems. Firstly, unlike the type of farming Fyrwald favours, organic farming is not dependent on polluting carbon-intensive pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. Organic farms also tend to use significantly less energy, sequester more carbon, and release something like 40 per cent less carbon emissions. And they do that while fostering more biodiversity.
Fyrwald’s specific point about organic involving ploughing, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, ignores the growing number of organic growers who either don’t plough or limit ploughing. Meanwhile, although synthetic herbicides, like glyphosate, and herbicide-tolerant crops are supposed to encourage no ploughing (or “tilling”), a recent study of the US corn–soybean cropping systems, published in the journal Nature, showed that this trend has gone into reverse since 2008 because of the growing proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds. And for the same reason, the study authors say, “tillage intensity is anticipated to continue rising”.
Fyrwald is correct that organic crops can yield less than those produced by more intensive farming but this problem is not as severe as he suggests. In drought years, organic can outperform conventionally grown crops by as much as 40%. And there are other ways to address the yield issue. For instance, many of the crop varieties currently available to organic farmers have been developed for chemical-intensive cultivation. But this could be solved by the EU and others investing in breeding high-yielding organic varieties, along with outreach and training programmes for farmers. And the costs of investing in supporting organic agriculture would be more than offset by reduced expenditure on the externalities of intensive farming, which is contributing to collapsing biodiversity, accelerating climate change, worsening pollution (fertilisers, pesticides), and deteriorating nutrition and health.
Baseless claims: Food crisis
To call what is currently happening a “food crisis” is really a misnomer. There is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and, even with the logistical disruptions to maize and wheat crops caused by the war in Ukraine, there is still enough grain available to the world market to meet existing needs. The current crisis is a product not of food scarcity but of fear and speculation, causing prices to skyrocket on global markets. In other words, it’s a food price crisis.
Even so, there are countries, like Somalia, Sudan, Benin, Egypt, Eritrea and Lebanon, that are particularly dependent on grain supplies from Ukraine, or Russia, and which are not in a position to easily buy their way out of this crisis. However, there is a far better fix for this price shock than pointlessly abandoning organic farming in the midst of a biodiversity crisis.
Stop burning food
First, we need to stop burning food. Every day, Europe turns 10,000 tonnes of wheat – equivalent to 15 million loaves of bread – into biofuels for use in cars, a recent study shows. In the US, it has been calculated that around 90 million tonnes of maize a year is used in the same way. Tim Searchinger at Princeton University has calculated that if the US and Europe cut their use of biofuels by 50 per cent, this would effectively replace all of Ukraine’s exports of grain.
Stopping burning vast quantities of food in cars also turns out to be easy to do. As Ariel Brunner of Birdlife International told New Scientist, “Because the biofuel market is entirely driven by subsidies, you can unplug it literally with the stroke of a pen”. And, according to Jason Hill at the University of Minnesota in St Paul, this positive signal of increased grain availability would by itself immediately have an outsized impact on food prices.
Scrapping biofuel mandates would be an environmental boon because these fuels are far from climate-friendly. A recent study showed that turning maize into biofuel, which the US does on a gigantic scale, is at least 24 per cent more carbon-intensive than gasoline.
War and hunger profiteers
So if Erik Fyrwald is really so concerned about hunger, why isn’t he attacking the boondoggle that is biofuels, rather than going after organic farming? The obvious answer is that the farmers being subsidised to grow biofuels are big consumers of agrichemicals and, in the US case, GMO seeds – unlike organic farmers, who buy neither.
And Syngenta isn’t just benefiting from the status quo. It is also benefiting massively from the war in Ukraine. In the first quarter of 2022, Syngenta sales, boosted by the climate of concern, grew overall by a massive 26 per cent, with pesticide sales up a quarter.
These are good times for Syngenta and if they can also use the present crisis to see off the threat of Farm to Fork, and even get industrial food production ramped up while organic farming gets knocked back, then Syngenta can make the kind of killing that disaster capitalists dream of. Meanwhile, none of this is likely to make any significant difference to the food price crisis, nor will it make our food system any less vulnerable to global shocks, but it will exacerbate the worsening biodiversity and climate crises that threaten our food security.
As Naomi Klein told an interviewer back in 2008, “There is a clear political strategy, and has been for several decades, to exploit these moments when people are desperate for quick-fix solutions and more inclined to believe in a kind of a magical cure, to push through very, very unpopular policies that don’t actually solve the crisis at hand, that don’t actually help people, but are incredibly profitable for multinational corporations.”