Welcome to Basel, Switzerland, home to Syngenta. In this picturesque city located along the banks of the Rhine River, you’ll find the headquarters to a company that extends its reach to more than 90 countries around the world with its more than 26,000 employees.
Although the company in its present form was created in late 2000 when Novartis and AstraZeneca merged their agribusinesses, its parent company roots stretch back well over 200 years. In fact, the company can trace its roots to Geigy, which was formed in 1758.
Today’s Syngenta is much more than an agricultural chemical company. Although its core business includes herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, the company has made huge strides in field crops, vegetables, flowers, seed care, and lawn and garden products.
Research and development
Syngenta’s key research site for crop protection and seed care products is located just outside Basel in Stein, Switzerland. More than 350 people work at the expansive campus to develop the latest crop protection, seed care, and lawn and garden technology. It’s here where the newest insecticide and fungicide molecules are formulated and tested.
“We have to start with several thousand molecules in the discovery phase to end up with one product that’s in commercial use,” says Andrew Plant, head of chemistry, Syngenta. “And this process can take more than eight years.”
While new tools have allowed researchers better ways to evaluate new products, it is still a lengthy process that includes finding the new active ingredient and also evaluating it for possible commercialization.
“We have to establish the safety profile of the product early in the process so that it can actually be registered and prove it provides a value to the grower,” Plant says.
Syngenta’s other key chemistry research sites are located in Jealott’s Hill, U.K.; Research Triangle Park, N.C.; and Goa, India. The key biotechnology research facilities are in North Carolina and Beijing, China.
The company’s fungicide portfolio, which includes popular products like Quadris and Tilt for the corn and soybean markets, is a major focus of research.
“Our fungicide market is important, and growing,” says Harald Walter, research portfolio manager, fungicides and new technologies. “Producers are seeing improved crop yield, and they want products that help protect their high-value seeds.”
The Stein facility has been at the forefront of developing products using a class of chemistry called succinate dehydrogenase inhibitors (SDHIs). This has led to the development of isopyrazam, which controls a broad range of pathogens, including leaf spot diseases and rusts on cereals and leaf spots and powdery mildews in other crops. Launched as Bontima and Seguris in the United Kingdom in 2010 and 2011, respectively, regulatory submissions are ongoing in Europe and the rest of the world.
Also from this chemistry class is sedaxane, a broad-spectrum fungicide that is used as a seed treatment. Launched in 2011 under the brand name Vibrance, it also has been shown to enhance root health. “That is something we did not expect when developing the molecule,” Walter says. The product was recently launched in Argentina and France. Syngenta expects additional registrations over the next two years.
Stein is home to the company’s primary Seed Care Institute. Seed production personnel from around the world come to learn how to use Syngenta’s seed treatment products, including Avicta and Cruiser. The facility is also a research center, where personnel work on ways to better incorporate seed treatments.
“This has been very popular, because it gives our customer seed companies the knowledge they need to optimize and safely use our products,” says Martin Faerber, global head of commercial for the Seed Care business.
One of Syngenta’s major facilities is in the town of Monthey, in the southeast corner of Switzerland.
This is where the products used on the farm are formulated and produced — from the basic active ingredients to the final formulations. It’s an exact process that is carried out in a facility with more than 850 employees. Syngenta recently spent more than $150 million Swiss francs (approximately $170 million U.S.) in expanding the facilities to meet an increasing demand.
David Abetel, production chemist for Syngenta, explains that the facility uses state-of-the-art production methods to ensure active ingredients are formulated correctly and consistently. This formulation can be as few as five or six steps or as complex as 12 to 15 steps. “Each step must be done with precision,” Abetel says. “And we are constantly monitoring the process.”
Before a new active ingredient goes into full production, the process must be developed and tested to formulate the end product on a larger scale. “We build a smaller production line to test how a product will be formulated and how we need to design the process,” Abetel says.
Active ingredients are shipped across the globe. The Monthey plant has formulation, fill and packaging facilities. It is here where you will find the packages that are most familiar: the end-use jugs or containers.
It’s not easy packaging products with differing labels for numerous countries. Syngenta has developed automated processes that help ensure the right product not only gets into the container, but gets the correct label.
A computer scanner takes a picture of every package to ensure the label is correct. “It’s a process that used to be done with several workers,” explains Antoine Mollereau, group leader. “The automation has helped us be more efficient.”
The efficiencies go beyond just packaging. The company recently introduced its S-pac in Europe, which encompasses a wide variety of modifications to its liquid packaging. The tamper-evident caps eliminate the need for foil, and every label has a translucent watermarked logo.
“This new packaging will offer more safety and convenience for our customers and ensure they are getting a Syngenta product,” Mollereau says. North American producers could see the new S-pac in the next few years.
The company is also testing a new QR-code system where producers can scan the label with a smartphone to get access to data about the product and gather credits in customer loyalty programs. Syngenta is evaluating the system, which is still in its infancy.