Syngenta’s John Atkin explains how to operationalise sustainability
Once the vision’s been agreed and a strategic direction chosen, it is time to work out the details of implementation for your sustainability plan. The Basel-based global agriculture company Syngenta went through that process before unveiling The Good Growth Plan in September 2013. The plan commits Syngenta to six objectives aimed at growing more food with less waste, creating more biodiversity with less degradation, and sustaining more health with less poverty. The commitments are backed up by rigorous metrics and independent monitoring to measure progress, with results published annually. The measures, which will track impact on objectives such as biodiversity, fair labour conditions, or crop productivity versus land, water and pesticide inputs, will be tied to around 800 reference farms around the world.
In addition to serving as Syngenta’s Chief Operating Officer, John Atkin is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. If that weren’t enough, he is also a farmer in his own right with a property in the UK. We asked him to walk us through the operational aspects of The Good Growth Plan.
SS: What has been your role with regard to The Good Growth Plan?
JA: I helped to shape the plan, mainly in terms of what we could achieve on the ground and establishing reasonable targets. We needed to be clear that what we were talking about was achievable before defining goals.
SS: As chief operating officer, what are key issues of concern for you in implementing the plan?
JA: Syngenta’s operations have always included sustainability, so the elements of The Good Growth Plan were already there. One example is the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions from our manufacturing facilities around the world and targeting reductions.
The challenge is to broaden this and to do it with more intensity—to create stretch goals—to achieve this with partners, to have it measured independently and to transparently report on our progress.
“Good growth” as a title was chosen deliberately because it is central to what we do. Our stakeholders can all identify that this is our business: growing more with less, improving biodiversity, reversing land degradation—those elements are all recognised by our customers and partners.
SS: In implementing a sustainability plan, what are the various roles and responsibilities within a large firm?
JA: Every part of the organization and all 28,000 Syngenta employees have essential roles to play. A good example is our field force who work with millions of farmers, many of whom are small holders in developing markets. They have been instrumental in identifying and securing reference farms and are actively explaining how The Good Growth Plan, and sustainable agriculture practices in general, can benefit rural communities and lift many smallholder farmers out of poverty.
SS: What are the roles of other stakeholders, such as shareholders, suppliers and customers?
JA: Shareholders are interested in value creation, so for them it is important to understand that The Good Growth Plan is about growing in the best way we can. All of the farmers I have met are concerned about sustainability. They rely on cohabiting with nature. Their role is to provide the reference farms where the plan will be implemented and tested. Suppliers see that they are working with a company that is seriously pursuing the goal of more sustainable agriculture— of growing more with less. That is a powerful message.
SS: One of a chief operating officer’s responsibilities is risk management. How does The Good Growth Plan integrate with Syngenta’s risk management strategies?
JA: Financial risk is a high priority because we operate in a lot of emerging markets. Central to The Good Growth Plan is providing the best and most upto- date technology to farmers. This will help our financial risk profiling by making farmers more competitive, and the most competitive customers are the best credit risks.
Reputational and policy risks are also affected. There are factions, especially in Europe, who look upon technology in agriculture unfavourably. We, frankly, think policy on the regulation of technology in agriculture is going in the wrong direction and we want to show the world that technology is a force for good. In order to do that, we are determined to set high goals and to achieve them. We hope that will improve trust in our industry and in our innovations.
SS: How do you determine performance indicators?
JA: We have thousands of our own people and partners around the world working with farmers. We know we can raise their yields. We know we have the technology for increasing biodiversity. We already train 3 million farmers a year. So we base it on what we know and then make it more challenging. Take, for example, improving degraded land. We know how to do it, but the goal of improving 10 million hectares is of course a stretch.
SS: Is it a challenge for a firm to implement a sustainability plan without shifting focus from the core business?
JA: First off, let me say that all of the components of The Good Growth Plan work well and are, therefore, good for business. The components of a sustainability plan must be linked to the core business.
Any company that wants to be serious about sustainability has to make it part of the central business. Of course we will be doing lots of business that is not directly related to The Good Growth Plan. We are targeting 800 reference farms globally in the first year—and we will do it.
The key to not losing focus is to know what you want to achieve and to be strategic about your approach. Syngenta has been engaged in sustainability for a long time. The difference here is that we intend to measure and communicate the results.
Article by Peter Carson