Agrifood part of ‘crowd’ that can better Kauai

I believe Syngenta and the agrifood business community are also part of the “crowd” described in TGI Forum’s commentary by Janos Keoni Samu (“‘Crowd’ can influence community for the better,” May 11, 2016). We’re part of the crowd that can better Kauai.

Sadly though, this breathtakingly beautiful island seems — below the surface — trapped in a false dichotomy, a grossly oversimplified debate. We’re witnessing a regrettable descent into binary, “us versus them” polemics. Is it that unthinkable that we can both be right at the same time? Or wrong at the same time? Or really aiming for the same goal? The somber state of journalism today is that without pitting two caricatured sides against one another, news sources would have little “click-bait” to lure audiences and sell far less advertising.

I actually agree with some of Janos’ points. Don’t rub your eyes in disbelief. I agree organized crowds can improve communities. It’s largely why, once I completed my service in Peace Corps West Africa, I decided to cast my lot with an R&D-focused innovator ag company using chemistry and plant breeding to fight viruses, insects and weeds that would otherwise destroy 40 percent of crops according to the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization.

Janos is right on several other counts. There is indeed “no absolutely safe product — be it a pesticide, genetically engineered foodstuff” or “organic” food or pesticide (yes, organic agriculture uses a number of pesticides, too). He’s right that crowds have rebuilt cities and restored infertile lands. And, I also see nothing wrong with providing a way for people to know if food has been produced with the help of genetic engineering. Let me explain …

First, there’s indeed no such thing as zero risk in crop protection products or any other thing we rely on for day-to-day life. Pesticides, including those approved for organic foods and those we use routinely in our homes and businesses, can be harmful if used at too high a dosage or in a way not allowed by their label.

He’s right that we’ve got to do more to restore land around the world. Syngenta recently accepted these challenges to make land more fertile and reduce food waste, among our other commitments to the planet. For instance, over the next 5 years, we’re committed to make crops more efficient by increasing the average productivity of the world’s major crops by 20 percent without using more land, water or inputs.

In addition, we’re in the process of rescuing more farmland by improving the fertility of 10 million hectares (about 24 million acres) of farmland on the brink of degradation. Fertile soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture, but poor farming practices expose soil to erosion by wind and rain, leaving millions of hectares infertile each year. Some 40 percent of the world’s farmland is already seriously degraded, and an area large enough to feed Europe is too depleted to produce food. Achieving this ambitious goal will require better policies for land and soil management. That is why we have a partnership with the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification to establish a soil leadership academy.

Another priority area for us is biodiversity, which can flourish by enhancing the natural habitat, and we’ve begun by improving 5 million hectares (approximately 12 million acres) of farmland. Clearing more wilderness to plant crops as many food-scarce nations are forced to do threatens biodiversity and is not sustainable. We must protect all remaining natural habitats for the health of our planet.

Turning to GMO labeling, the agrifood chain is divided on this topic but here’s where I am on it: Considering the Food Drug Administration affirms GMO and non-GMO are nutritionally equivalent, there’s an argument to be made that labeling is disingenuous, confusing to shoppers, and a way that helps the organic industry sell its products. However, appreciating the fact that some people oppose ag GMO, and that “kosher” and “halal” food are labeled on religious grounds, perhaps the non-ag GMO crowd could have its way. The main caveat is that policymakers should fix this at the federal level rather than by labyrinthine state or local patchwork.

So while I can agree on key points Janos makes, I do not agree that companies like mine are motivated by purely self-serving motives. The best businesses are those that prosper while serving a greater purpose. It’s time for a serious rethink of this island’s false dichotomy of “big corporations” and “activist greens.” What if both entities are actually striving for and working toward the same goals? What if an activist, local farmer, and a seed company agronomist are one-in-the-same: committed to human health and environmental stewardship.

As one of my favorite poets, 13th century mystic Rumi, once wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

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Angus R. Kelly of Kunia is the head of Corporate Affairs for Syngenta, Hawaii LLC.

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