Accelerated innovation provides game-changing tools for farmers

Accelerated innovation provides game-changing tools for farmers
Photo Courtesy of Syngenta Group

In the world of agricultural technology, the billion-dollar blockbuster product is all too rare. And so it’s all the more remarkable that Syngenta has three new crop protection technologies on the market that are on pace to achieve blockbuster status within the next few years.

The company’s blockbuster trifecta is no coincidence—but, rather, evidence of a well-planned strategy to boost both the pace and quality of agricultural research and development. The three Syngenta trademarked active ingredients that are on track to each achieve at least $1 billion a year in global sales:

TYMIRIUM® technology is a remarkably effective nematicide and fungicide that can be applied in minuscule amounts in fields, or directly on seeds, to help young seedlings thrive in the first few weeks of life. Unlike many previous molecules in this category, TYMIRIUM® technology doesn’t harm the many varieties of nematodes—microscopic worms—that are beneficial to soil health and biodiversity. It also has multiple uses to protect crops in later stages against diseases such as the devastating fusarium that has been destroying banana fields in the Philippines. 

PLINAZOLIN® technology is a broad-spectrum insecticide that’s Syngenta’s fastest-growing technology to date, due to its versatility and effectiveness with a broad variety of crops. 

Finally, ADEPIDYN® technology is a long-lasting fungicide that requires very few applications and can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. ADEPIDYN® technology also protects wheat crops against the fungus fusarium, which left unchecked, can produce mycotoxins—naturally occurring toxic chemicals that can be harmful to consumers.  

Syngenta scientists were able to create these three new active ingredients on the basis of computational chemistry, which helped refine the molecules’ design after they had identified the desired molecular mode of action. 

“Climate change is making farmers’ work increasingly difficult and highlighting the urgent need for products that are better at protecting both crop yields and the environment,” said Dr. Camilla Corsi, Syngenta’s head of crop protection research. 

It can cost $150 to $250 million to develop a new active ingredient, so placing the right long-term bets—and backing them up with best-in-class scientists, technologies and partnerships—is essential. 

“We’ve committed to accelerating the pace of innovation while also dramatically improving the quality of each new innovation we introduce,’’ Corsi said, “so that we can give farmers the tools they need to feed the world while protecting the planet. The success of solutions such as TYMIRIUM® technology, PLINAZOLIN® technology  and ADEPIDYN® technology shows that our strategy is working.”

The anatomy of a blockbuster 

To break out as a contender for what Syngenta scientists refer to as the “billion-dollar club,” an active ingredient must be vastly superior to existing alternatives—in terms of efficacy, cost and environmental sustainability profile. It must work on a broad range of crops, in a variety of climatic conditions and against pests and diseases that plague multiple regions around the world. And it’s impossible to achieve blockbuster-level sales without satisfying increasingly stringent regulatory requirements, which can vary greatly from country to country.

While Syngenta’s three new standout technologies function in different ways and target different threats, they share a common recipe for success. Among the key ingredients: 

●       Substantial, sustained research and development investments; Syngenta invests $1.4 billion a year in R&D. 

●       State-of-the-art capabilities in chemistry, biology, agronomy, toxicology and omics (a field encompassing genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics).  

●       A willingness to make big bets that go against conventional market wisdom. 

●       Agile collaboration, at every stage of the process, among Syngenta’s world-leading scientists, partner companies tapped for their unique expertise and farmers on six continents.

Playing the long game

In the world of consumer technology, the journey from the initial spark of an idea to a product in the hands of millions of users can often take less than two years. But in agriculture, innovation is a long game. It can easily take 10 to 15 years to discover a new active ingredient and complete the necessary and rigorous field- and lab-based tests. Those tests must ensure that the ingredient is not only effective but also safe for humans and the broader ecosystem, while providing the evidence to secure regulatory approvals. Adding to the degree of difficulty: crop protection regulations vary greatly from country to country and are continually in flux. 

With those lead times and uncertainties, anything that can improve the success rate provides a key advantage. That’s true not only from a business standpoint, but in terms of introducing new products and technologies that enable the world’s farmers to meet the ever-changing challenges they face in responding to climate change, while also providing greater food security for an expanding global population. As weather patterns change, farmers often find themselves contending with insects, pathogens and weeds that are entirely unfamiliar to their part of the world.

“We need to have a crystal ball and look 10 to 15 years in the future,” said Ioana Tudor, Syngenta’s global head of marketing for crop protection. “We need to think about, ‘How will the climate evolve? What pests and weeds will be threatening crops? Will the solutions that work today work in the future, or will there be resistance? How will regulations evolve?’ Then we need to design molecules that are efficacious, cost-effective and registerable—and that meet farmers’ greatest needs better than the competition.”

The TYMIRIUM® technology case study

Back in 2008, when Syngenta began developing the solution that would become TYMIRIUM® technology the market for nematicides was one-tenth its current size. That’s because nematodes were not always recognized as a culprit. They can be difficult to detect from above ground and cause damage that’s often misattributed to factors like drought and disease. 

Nematicides safeguard against plant-parasitic nematodes, microscopic worms that feed on plant roots. But not all forms of nematodes pose a threat. In fact, many types promote soil and plant health by feeding on harmful bacteria, fungi or other microscopic creatures. Any new, improved treatment needed to target the destructive nematodes without harming the beneficial ones.  

Syngenta had been pioneering the use of seed treatments to guard against nematodes and wanted to develop a successor product that was broader spectrum and easier to apply. Company leaders knew they would have to build the nematicide market, by increasing awareness of a threat that has often gone untreated in parts of the world—but can cost farmers worldwide up to $358 billion in crop losses each year, according to research published in the journal Nature. And as climate change raises temperatures in many agricultural regions worldwide, the warmer soil is increasingly conducive to parasitic nematodes. 

Computational chemistry, data science and closer collaboration

In the past, researchers would screen hundreds of thousands of molecules to identify the one with the greatest promise of combatting a particular threat. Today, Syngenta scientists use computational chemistry, which incorporates mathematical modeling, AI algorithms and digital simulations to identify the most promising molecules and suggest new syntheses of molecules with the desired characteristics.

Selecting the right molecules to synthesize involves precision-tailoring them to fit hundreds of parameters. Among other considerations, the adjustments include:

●       Maximizing each molecule’s effectiveness at protecting crops from the targeted threats.

●       Minimizing the impact on beneficial organisms and the broader ecosystem.

●       Enhancing the molecules’ ability to withstand rain and heat.

●       Ensuring the safety of farmers and consumers. 

Syngenta, Corsi noted, has a special team devoted to identifying molecules’ mode of action— the specific mechanism by which they protect against a threat. “This elucidation happens at a very early stage of the research process, so we can immediately rule out chemistries that don’t have the right attributes to become a great product,” she said.

“Once we know which component of the molecule we need to control the pest, disease or weed we’re targeting,’’ Corsi said, “we use computational chemistry to refine that molecule until we’ve satisfied all of our conditions—including effectiveness, safety and environmental sustainability. With TYMIRIUM® technology, for example, we designed our molecule so that it targets plant-parasitic nematodes—but leaves helpful nematodes and other microorganisms intact.”  

Syngenta has also streamlined the process of refining products based on field test results and farmer feedback. This involves close collaboration among global research and business teams and the local representatives who are most attuned to farmers’ experiences and needs, according to Jader Caricati, the global product management lead for TYMIRIUM® technology.  

“We have brilliant and passionate scientists, world-class laboratories and infrastructure, digital technologies that allow us to predict how products will work in the field and excellent field development teams that test our pipeline products all over the world, in real-life conditions,” Caricati said.

Game-changing tools for farmers

For farmers, gaining access to a new product can make all the difference.  

Tiziano Agostinelli, a fourth-generation tomato grower from La Plata, Argentina, just outside Buenos Aires, lost roughly 80% of his yields during the planting season stretching from December 2020 through January 2021. The cause: a disastrous combination of plant-parasitic nematodes, soil diseases including fusarium and extremely high temperatures. 

“The nematodes attacked the roots of the plants, which weakened them to the point where they were unable to fight diseases and survive the high temperatures,” Agostinelli said in an interview. “It was almost a complete loss.” 

Argentina has phased out the use of methyl bromide—a powerful soil fumigant that can protect against harmful nematodes but also depletes the ozone layer — prompting growers like Agostinelli to cobble together various combinations of products, often with disappointing results. 

In 2022, Argentina became one of the first countries to grant regulatory approval to TYMIRIUM® technology-based products. At first, Agostinelli acknowledges, he was skeptical. 

 “The first time I heard about TYMIRIUM® technology, I thought it was just another solution that makes lots of promises with regard to nematode control but then doesn't turn out to work so well,” he said. “When we ran our first test, together with Syngenta’s specialists, we noticed that the difference was really very profound.” 

Besides battling harmful nematodes, the nematicide and fungicide can also protect plants against devastating diseases like the fusarium fungus (which can plague a variety of crops).

“When a plant is affected by nematodes or fusarium, the leaves get yellowish or discolored, the tomatoes come out small and you need to be applying products all the time to make it to harvest,” Agostinelli said. “With TYMIRIUM® technology the plant is vital, it’s lively, it’s green. The tomatoes are just the right size. The roots are stronger, thicker and longer, because they’re protected.” 

The application process is also “totally different,” Agostinelli said. Instead of applying 15 to 30 liters of products per hectare throughout the growing season, workers now sprinkle 300 to 400 milliliters of the nematicide and fungicide per hectare just once, within one to three days of planting. 

For certain crops, including corn, wheat and soybeans, a thin coating of products based on TYMIRIUM® technology can be applied directly to seeds.  

“We know that strong, healthy roots improve soil health, reduce erosion and maximize carbon capture,” Corsi said. “TYMIRIUM® technology-based seed treatments have the extra benefit that they’re extremely localized. There’s no need to apply the product across entire fields.” 

“Growers are the ones who decide”

As Corsi’s team searches for tomorrow’s blockbusters, they’re using the same recipe for accelerated, improved innovation to create a steady stream of more specialized products. These products are designed to be as effective, safe and environmentally sustainable as the broad-use blockbusters, but they have limited market potential because they only work for certain crops, climates or threats.

“With our blockbusters and with our specialized products, we need to bring clear innovation to growers,” Corsi said. “Growers know what’s best for their fields and crops, and they’re the ones who decide whether a product becomes a blockbuster. Growers are the ones who decide whether our years of research and development are worth it.”  

About Syngenta Group

Syngenta Group is one of the world’s biggest agricultural technology companies, with roots going back more than 250 years. With more than 59,000 employees, operating in more than 100 countries, the company strives to transform food production through Regenerative Agriculture - a science-driven, technology-enabled approach to improve soil, deliver high productivity and high-quality food, help fight climate change and restore lost biodiversity. Syngenta Group, which is registered in Shanghai, China, and has its management headquarters in Switzerland, draws strength from its four business units:  Syngenta Crop Protection, headquartered in Switzerland; Syngenta Seeds, headquartered in the United States; ADAMA®, headquartered in Israel; and Syngenta Group China. Together, these businesses provide industry-leading ways to serve customers around the world.  



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