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Our Insights 23 Feb 2016

Good Growth, Together: Juan Gonzalez-Valero, Syngenta

By Chris Guenther

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SustainAbility’s latest report, Orchestrating Change: Catalyzing the Next Generation of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Sustainability, was published in January.

Syngenta, the global agribusiness company, which has made collaboration a key focus of its Good Growth Plan, was a sponsor of the report. We talked to Juan Gonzalez-Valero, Head of Public Policy and Sustainability for Syngenta, about how collaboration continues to grow in importance for the company, and for sustainable development generally.

Chris Guenther: What are some of the key collaborative initiatives that Syngenta is part of, and how do you think about the role that collaboration plays in the Good Growth Plan?

Juan Gonzalez-Valero: Syngenta is among the world’s leading agricultural technology companies. We’ve been a part of the WEF for several years now and were instrumental in the development of the ‘New Vision for Agriculture.’ We have co-chaired the WBCSD Vision 2050 and the resulting Action 2020. Behind the Good Growth Plan is one stark fact: Rising populations and incomes mean that the world’s demand for agricultural production will double this century. We are acutely aware of the human and environmental implications of that fact. To us it says that the world must grow more food on less land, with less water and other inputs in the years ahead. It also means that the world’s estimated 500 million smallholders need to be included in finding solutions for future global food security. And it demands working in close partnership with suppliers, value-chain partners and customers to raise farmers’ productivity and earnings sustainably – not only by providing products, know-how and training but also by helping them to finance higher-yielding products and reach markets to sell their crops.

The world’s demand for agricultural production will double this century.

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As we see it, our biggest challenge isn’t in the commitments themselves, but what needs to change if we’re going to achieve them – changing old ways of thinking and challenging established positions, looking at new approaches that can create new learning and new opportunities. A big part of that, we believe, must entail breaking through the old corporate vs. non-profit silos, moving beyond suspicion, taking a risk on deep and on-going collaboration and knowledge sharing with people who may not be in one another’s comfort zones.

There are so many collaborations nowadays. How do you manage the competition for resources and attention, and how do you make choices about where and how to become involved in new initiatives?

The world has changed. Business as usual won’t work if we’re going to create the rapid change that the world needs. It won’t work for business, which has to look beyond immediate profit and embrace its responsibility for the planet at large – we all know that. But it won’t work for the non-business sector either. Of course, partnerships mean investments but they also mean the opportunity of a larger divided – if they’re successful.

How do you engage your colleagues in Syngenta’s business units in order for them to see the benefit of and participate in this work?

Our business is used to working in partnership – mainly in partnership with other businesses, but also with non-business actors. Our strategy builds on integrating adjacent technologies into solutions that put farmer needs at the center. Consequently, that also defines upon what we focus. A concrete example is the capacity building of farmers. We reach over 17 million of them every year with our products and we train about 4 million every year on how to make the best use of these products safely. But our internal capacity is limited, so we always look for partners that can reach those that we cannot reach directly. The success of such partnerships can be assessed through their impact: we measure the number of farmers we train in partnership and we conduct impact assessment to improve the reach.

What have been some of the more profound lessons that you’ve learned as you and your colleagues have worked on and within these initiatives?

Genuine co-creation is needed. Collaborations work best when the involved parties with a shared ambition come to the table with an open mind and the willingness to create something together that will move the needle towards the shared ambition. Whenever one of the partners just tries to get support for its own agenda, the likelihood of failure increases.

That process of co-creation and trust-building can be very slow at times, yes? Do you find that potential collaborators are getting better or faster at it? Are there particular strategies or tools you’ve used to aid the process?

I wish there would be a one-size-fits-all solution to this, but there isn’t. Like with any new business development you need rigor in setting up a sustainable and scalable model with a clear set of KPIs. In that sense, it is standard business management tools that need to be applied and it looks like there is a broader common understanding among stakeholders of such a need – as manifested in UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17.

There’s been a great deal of excitement, and certainly some hype, about collaboration in recent years. Do you perceive a genuine shift in the nature and impact of collaboration? What’s needed for it to truly scale?

Too often partnerships still fail, because the constituencies behind the organizations are too conservative and defensive.

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The picture is patchy. There is still too much polarization, too much fighting corners, too little will for compromises and real collaboration. There are good examples, of course, but too often partnerships still fail because the constituencies behind the organizations are too conservative and defensive. However, as we see it, the challenges for business and society are just too big to let our differences – whether they’re ideological, cultural or just the dead weight of habit – get in the way.

Are people in business better at recognizing the connections between the big societal challenges and business success? If so, is it more or less the case in the food & ag industry than elsewhere?

I cannot talk for business in general. As mentioned earlier, at Syngenta I truly believe we have. The Good Growth Plan is not a standalone sustainability strategy. It is a way to measure the sustainability of our strategy. And we have implemented rigorous controls throughout the business to measures our progress.

We do this because we recognize the connections between the challenges and long-term business success. I assume we are not the only ones, but it is true that our sector is probably more exposed than others as highlighted in a research report that we did a few years back. We called it Agricultural Disconnect and the high-level message is that we have an urban-rural divide about the need for resource efficiency and innovation in agriculture. If we don’t manage to close that gap, I am convinced that many of the UN SDGs will not be met.

The SDGs and the Paris Agreement have the potential to catalyze much more widespread collaboration for sustainability, and both are historic collaborative achievements in their own right. How do you expect they will change the playing field for Syngenta?

For the SDGs to be more than an aspirational set of goals, the 2030 agenda needs to mobilize action and unlock the innovation needed. We have to build multi-stakeholder partnerships, address governance challenges, and invest in new technologies and business models. We also need better data for sustainable development, monitoring and accountability. Ensuring availability and accessibility of key data in open and transparent ways will accelerate sustainable innovations and technological advancements for people and planet. With The Good Growth Plan, Syngenta has embarked on this journey.

What do you hope to see happen next with respect to collaboration for sustainability?

Business-as-usual (of all actors) will not lead the world on a sustainable development path. The agenda explicitly asks for achieving the goals through combined action of all actors. I therefore hope to see a paradigm shift in collaboration among governments, NGOs, businesses, financial and donor institutions, schools and universities, and media, to depolarize the debate, and make educated decision for a sustainable future that decouples economic growth from environmental degradation and human rights abuse.

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