Q&A: Syngenta's CEO on Food Crisis and Biofuels

From diplomats to disaster-relief workers to diehard free traders, almost everyone has weighed in on the international food crisis. Not surprisingly, opinions on how the current problems came about, and prescriptions for what to do about them, have varied widely. But one influential group of experts has kept a relatively low profile: biotech companies. Yet whether it's creating high-tech plants through gene splicing or concocting a better fertilizer, cutting-edge agricultural science is certain to be part of the survival kit for an ever-hungrier world. One of the biggest innovators in the business is Syngenta, the Swiss-based seed and agricultural products company. The company's CEO, Mike Mack, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Mac Margolis about the causes and myths of the food crisis, and what his company is doing about it.

NEWSWEEK: Is the world running out of food?
Mike Mack: I get the sense that there's bit more calm coming into the debate now. Some of what caused the initial panic was the disruption of the trade of key grains on world markets, which created a domino effect. That seems to be changing. Now the former Soviet states have resumed exports. So has Thailand. The prices of some of the big grains have retreated somewhat. The danger is when [countries] shut off their markets. When people shut off their borders, it creates a disincentive to growers and people have to guess a bit about demand.

But food costs are rising. Is widespread hunger still a threat? Aren't the harvests of staple crops at risk?
There's absolutely no data to suggest that famine is near or that a collapse in grain harvests is likely. Of the five major grains in the world, corn and soybeans are used for feed and oils, not for food. The big food crops are wheat and rice, but rice is not really an international grain. Only about 5 percent of what's consumed every year is traded globally. The one big grain traded around the world is wheat, and inventories are somewhat lower than they have been in recent years. But the regions that tend to be persistently hungry, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, are almost totally unaffected because they don't participate in the global grain trade. The difference is that the cost of food-aid programs has skyrocketed. And remember that the price of grain is only part of the total cost of food. Prices have risen with the fall of the dollar and the rising cost of oil, which has a direct impact on the price of fertilizers.

What role can genetically modified food crops play in solving the current crisis and increasing food supply?
Genetically modified crops will help. We are not looking at a factor-fold increase in yield for given crops. Planting glyphosate-tolerant seeds [engineered to withstand herbicide] for crops such as cotton, soybeans, corn, canola and sugar beet makes it easy for farmers by lowering their costs and allowing for more efficient weed control. For other crops, such as bt [pesticide-tolerant] corn, yield will rise but only in regions vulnerable to specific pests and problems. Most farmers need to know how to make the best use of the tools that are already available through conventional agriculture, such as efficient irrigation and taking better care of soils. Without this, there's no use in talking about the Green Revolution 2.0 when they're still waiting for the Green Revolution 1.0.

What's in store for the next generation of agricultural biotech? Are you preparing the farm for climate change?
The big biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta are all working on drought-tolerant technology. It's one of the most promising things in our pipeline. We are working on corn that will continue to produce substantial yields even under water stress. Our first products [in this line] will be available by 2011. The fact is that most of the world's main crops will be hit not only by intermittent drought but will be planted on marginally productive land. Drought-tolerant technology can bring this marginal land into production.

Does conventional technology, which doesn't rely on genetic modification, also have a place on the farm of the future?
Absolutely. One of our most promising innovations, Invinsa, is a sprayable formulation that represses the manufacture of ethylene, a compound which essentially tells plants to shutdown during times of extended heat and drought. By blocking ethylene, we can ease water stress and enhance photosynthesis of plants. We have a huge amount of enthusiasm in this project and see a potential market of a half a billion dollars. We also have successfully tropicalized the sugar beet, which is typically a temperate climate crop, to produce sugar and ethanol. This is the result of more than 10 years of mutagenesis, or crossbreeding hybrids to find mutations, to come up with a variety that performs exceptionally well in warm weather.

Are rising food prices going to reduce political resistance to planting GM crops?
We are already seeing this happen. A big food importer in Japan is now bringing in GM corn. Consumers mostly live in the city and don't normally think about how the food they eat got to market. The current crisis creates an opportunity because we can remind consumers how it happens and that agricultural policy needs to be carefully thought out. There are only a few countries in the world that export food, including the U.S., the former Soviet countries, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Australia. All these use GM crops, not because they are seeing increased productivity but because they are professional farmers and know GM gives them some important tools for modern agriculture. The first step for food companies is to explain to the wider public that GM is not what they feared. Policy makers are going to see it as an important tool. But we shouldn't use the food crisis to say that biotech is a silver bullet.

How much of the blame for high food prices should be attributed to ethanol produced from farm crops like corn?
Those who are demonizing ethanol are either misinformed or diverting attention from the real issues. I recently read a claim that anyone who fills up an SUV with corn-based ethanol is consuming enough corn to feed a poor family for year. Corn in the U.S. is only for animal feed. Only 3 percent of the U.S. crop is sweet corn for human consumption. So turning corn to ethanol is not taking food from peoples' mouths. No one is saying that if you didn't turn sugar cane into ethanol people would have more to eat. The major culprit for rising food prices is the cost of oil. There is a discussion about bioethanol that is warranted. It's about where, when and if governments should subsidize crops for biofuels. Some ways to make ethanol are more efficient than others. Sugar cane has a better conversion rate for bioethanol than does corn. But corn has contributed somewhat to energy self-sufficiency. Remember that we are at the cutting edge of this technology. To back away from biofuel now would be a global mistake.