Sowing Sustainable Agriculture in Asia Pacific

Identifying solutions to the agricultural industry’s dilemma requires the co-operation of all stakeholders across society, business and government, Syngenta’s Andrew McConville explains 

What are the current shortfalls in current food production modalities and how can companies, such as Syngenta, help to tackle these ? 

Ensuring that stakeholders understand the importance of sustainable outcomes in agriculture to provide global food security is essential as demands increase with population growth and a broader wealth distribution. Business has a much greater role to play in helping growers farm sustainably as there are a lot of moving parts that must be addressed. Individual corporations alone cannot resolve the issues we face given the global scale.Each day 870m people go hungry, 70% of whom depend upon farming for their livelihood. Globally there is a constant demand for more land, water, and labour all which have implications for agriculture, productivity and the environment. Providing appropriate technology, educating growers how to use that technology properly, providing the infrastructure to get produce to market and access to the world’s markets are all essential components of the agricultural industry’s dilemma today – how to we grow more with less.

What is required now is a shifting of the debate from focusing on the problems to identifying solutions. This will require the co-operation of all stakeholders across society, business and government. To do this all parties must be willing to engage and have the courage to sit down at the table together to find solutions on all sides, including with their critics.

Is the food industry sufficiently transparent and well understood by today’s consumers? What issues and opportunities does this present for communications professionals and designing a global strategy? 

Educating people on what sustainable agriculture brings to the table and its importance is a journey as a great deal about the industry is not widely known nor understood by consumers. This is a reflection of its transparency. For example 40% of the world’s food would not exist without modern pesticides. The technology is essential for food security. Nor is there enough land available to meet the world’s food needs through organic production, which currently represents just 2% of the world’s agricultural output. Moreover, it takes us upwards of ten years and several hundred million dollars to bring a new product to market.These costs are not tied up in R&D alone, but in meeting the stringent environmental and food safety procedures that we abide by. As an industry we have to take the initiative to educate consumers and help them understand the commitment and contribution of modern agriculture to safety, quality and sustainability. In order to achieve this we must help governments, who understand the importance of technology in improving agricultural outcomes, to address the legitimate concerns of consumers.

Yet this is only possible once you have identified the stakeholders, informed yourself on their issues, concerns and objectives. Only then can you start to educate them and hope to have some legitimate level of influence on the outcome. Too often companies want to influence without understanding their audience.

How has the food and agriculture industry’s communication requirements changed in the past ten years and what do you anticipate will define the next 10 ?

The food price crisis of 2007-08 certainly helped push agriculture to the front page, the industry forward and further stakeholder engagement. In the past six years the level of engagement and access across all spectrums has increased exponentially, but especially with government. With that has come the responsibility to both understand our responsibility as an industry and to exercise it in a mature manner. This will not change.Looking forward, sustainability and safety will remain central tenets of the industry’s work. But in addition there will be greater attention paid to how companies are aiding the development of the agriculture industry and supporting the environment holistically. Be it facilitating delivery from the field to the market, helping governments address labour shortages, improve knowledge transfer or enabling small holders to adopt technology. This last issue resonates no more so than in Asia where almost 400m of the world’s 450m smallholder farmers are located.

What have proven to be the most reliable qualifiers of an effective global communications message and strategy at the local level ?

Education, rather than exposure, has proven the most fruitful strategy in providing sustainable outcomes at the local level. This is, again, dependent on educating yourself on your stakeholders’ needs and priorities. Moreover, be moderate in expectations, credible in your delivery, have genuine examples that you can point to and always demonstrate your results to the stakeholders. Also start small and then grow it – you can’t boil the ocean on food security. These things take an inordinate amount of time to produce results, you have to work hard to find those people who have common objectives and to support them. Building effective thought leadership platforms is essential. It is not going to happen overnight, but efforts will be rewarded in the mid to long term.

Where might the F&A industry benefit from corporate expertise outside the F&A sector? 

With the world’s population growing by 200,000 each day and 40% of world’s population set to live in an area classified as water scarce by 2050 there are innumerable areas for collaboration. Multi-nationals and the agricultural sector are increasingly recognising the importance of working together – the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture is a great example of this.We, as an agricultural inputs company, believe it is important to establish linkages down the value chain. We maintain close dialogue with companies like Yara, Unilever and Nestlé, as well as NGOs like the Fair Labor Association, USAID and the UNCCD. Together we are able to work with farmers to help bring technology, improve knowledge, provide education and link to markets. Ultimately this is what will improve the productivity and profitability of farmers and the well being of the communities they support. We are dependent upon these communities for ensuring the achievement of sustainable, global food security and we must support them.

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