With higher interest rates and customers facing tighter profit margins, most major seed and crop protection companies faced strong headwinds going into 2024. Syngenta Group is no exception, with sales for the first quarter of 2024 at $7.4 billion, down $1.8 billion or 20% compared to a much stronger first quarter in 2023. But since being elected CEO in October of last year, Jeff Rowe is optimistic that research and development investments made over the last decade, totaling about $611 million in the U.S. alone, position the company for stronger future growth. The agricultural technology giant employs about 60,000 people in more than 100 countries.

The fifth-generation farmer previously served as president of Syngenta’s seed and crop protection businesses, where he spearheaded a focus on regenerative agriculture and soil health. Prior to joining the company, he served for 20 years in several leadership roles for DuPont Pioneer. Agri-Pulse Founder Sara Wyant visited him on his farm near Princeton, Illinois, for this interview, which was edited for clarity and brevity. 

Q: It takes years to build up new seed varieties and try to move the needle on market share. How is that working for Syngenta Seeds?

A. The seed business for Syngenta globally is doing very well. We've got some excellent growth opportunities that we've capitalized on and some future growth opportunities we're excited about. The thing I'm probably most excited about is the research and development organization we've built in Syngenta Seeds. I've interacted with a lot of researchers for many years and I can tell the ones that have it and the ones that don't. We’ve got a great group of people who I believe have it and they're starting to deliver.  

As you know, things you see now started about seven years ago. When I joined Syngenta a little over seven years ago, it took a while to get some things going. The future looks a lot brighter than the recent past and the recent past has been pretty good. Up until last year, we were the fastest growing seed company in the world for three or four years in a row. We had the highest revenue growth of any of the other majors and we were higher than the average for the seed industry. Last year we had a bit of an issue in Brazil that hurt the average, but if you take that out, it’s still pretty good. We’ve got a lot of great new products coming and we're putting some really good products on our farm here. I've been planting Syngenta seeds since I joined Syngenta so I've gotten to know the products not only as the president of the company, but also as a farmer.

Q. Have you seen similar growth in the crop protection side of the business?

A. Crop protection has been the historical strength of the company. I was recently with our sales team where they celebrated the three peat - three years in a row of profitable market share growth, which is pretty phenomenal for such a mature and large market. Our crop protection business in general is doing very well. It’s a little bit of a similar story as on seed R&D, but even more pronounced. Our crop protection pipeline is as strong now as it's ever been. If you think about a company like Syngenta Crop Protection, that has been around for a long time, making the statement that we've got a stronger pipeline now than we've ever had. That's a big statement. We have three blockbusters we have launched or are in the process of launching around the world that all have more than a billion-dollar potential. Nobody can remember the last time we've had three blockbusters we've launched at essentially the same time. That’s exciting.

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Q. You’re not alone in the crop protection industry in having some uncertainty on the regulatory front. Do you see any settling of the regulatory pressures on the horizon?

A. I wish I could tell you that they're going away. The reality is the regulatory pressures are becoming more and more difficult to predict, not just in the U.S., but other parts of the world. The regulatory uncertainty is not a new thing, but I would say that the unpredictability has probably increased. We recently received a new registration in the U.K. for a fungicide. I would never have predicted that, but it came through. That’s a really good sign.  

Q. How much does the regulatory process for new product approvals add to your operating cost?

A. Regulatory is one of the biggest costs we have. And I’m not even sure how to put a number on the uncertainty piece, but it's one that is changing. Because Europe has become such a difficult market with a low probability of success, we are shifting some of our regulatory focus away from markets like Europe. It’s extremely expensive for us and becoming more complicated as we bring new products to the market.

Q. What other trends are you seeing?

A. One thing that may not be obvious is the complexity of the molecules that comes with the complexity of the innovation has changed dramatically. In 1973, the year I was born, there was a new insecticide product called acephate. You had to put on about 1,000 grams per hectare. In 1999, a new product came out called TMX and that required only about 100 grams per hectare. The product we are launching now, PLINAZOLINE, requires only 12 grams per hectare. So in my lifetime, we went from 1,000 grams per hectare, down to 12 grams per hectare. That's pretty phenomenal. If you look at the core innovation the industry is bringing, there's some wonderful examples out there. 

Q. There’s been a lot of news in the last year about Chinese ownership of not only farmland, but companies like yours. What are you hearing from farmers? 

A. I ask that question when I have town halls and talk to our employees. What I hear is it’s not an issue with our farmers. The reality is that we are a global, Swiss-based company that has a shareholder in China. It hasn't changed who we are as a company. If anyone is concerned, I ask: 'Are we operating differently post-acquisition than we did pre-acquisition?' If people are honest, they'll say no, they're the same. I'm the second American CEO in a row. We've got a very multinational leadership team. Most of our employees have been with the company for 30-plus years. When you ask people in my hometown about Syngenta or me, they're going to say: That's the guy from Princeton.

Q. What else can you share about what’s in your pipeline to solve farmers' ongoing problems like drought resistance?

I wouldn’t set expectations that we’ll have totally drought-resistant crops, because you’ll need some form of water. But the drought resistance we've been able to achieve and we're continuing to achieve, is super exciting. The work we're doing in the insecticide space and the fungicide area, those are game changing. Herbicides have been a problem for the industry for a long time, but we’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline there. Overall, it's not so much like when Roundup-resistant crops came in where it totally shifted the mark. But I see us doing all the things we do normally at our core, significantly better. I think there'll be a step change that's good for farmers and good for us.

Q. You’ve also invested heavily in biologicals. What’s on the horizon?

A. Biologicals are a great area for us and they're growing fast. It’s a challenging area that requires a lot of expertise. There’s a lot of claims on biologicals, some of which are absolutely correct, some of which are less scientifically based. For us, it's the combination of understanding the biology, the chemistry, the plants, the agronomy, the soil, but then also having an extremely robust network to be able to test what's going on. We are inventing a lot in that space and also partnering with a lot of people who are bringing new innovation. Our ability to test those products and get them to customers is going to be the key to success. 

Q. What are the top 2-3 things that keep you up at night?

A. I am concerned about all the conflicts in the world. We have employees in some very difficult situations. I'm worried a bit about the markets right now. I know it's a cyclical industry and we're in a difficult part of the cycle. You've got to be a solid leader who provides direction and is responsive. Those things don’t keep me up at night, but they have my attention. I want to make sure we manage those situations the best we can and represent our customers and our company in the best way.

Q.  What are you most excited about for the future?

A.  I'm excited about our products and our people. There’s nothing more exciting or satisfying to me than being able to solve problems for farmers. Since I’ve been at Syngenta, I've been involved with some of the most exciting product launches of my entire career. These are great new products that are solving real problems for farmers and nobody else in the world has them.

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