A Conversation with Syngenta Bangladesh
‘Jute: An Eco-Friendly Alternative for a Sustainable Future’ was the title of the workshop I attended this week at the IDB Auditorium in Dhaka, home to the United Nations, Bangladesh. In attendance were trade and agriculture dignitaries who promote exports from the country, as well as fair trade organizations like the one I am interning with – Development Wheel (DEW) – which promote the producers of crops and handicrafts both regionally and internationally.
The workshop was a trade show of sorts, with numerous fair trade organizations displaying their lovely fabrics, papers, rugs, handbags, and the like, all made from jute. It was delightful! Making a comeback as an ‘eco-friendly’ cash crop in Bangladesh, jute fibers make elegant, tactile papers and fabrics.
As I wandered around the display of jute products, my supervisor and mentor at Development Wheel, knowing I am interested in how agriculture and agribusiness works in Bangladesh,introduced me to an executive at Syngenta, the Switzerland-based multinational seed company that ranks with Monsanto and Dow among the top 5 patent holders of seeds in the world today.
Of course I wanted to talk with him!
In this country where as much as 80-85% of the population lives in rural areas, agriculture plays an enormous role in the lives of millions of people. There is a dearth of government support at the local level, however, with agriculture extension offices remarkably understaffed. As a result, private businesses and NGOs make up the gap for farmers, but many of them behave unethically or are not well-trained in best practices in their own right.
Inputs such as hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are frequently misused by farmers due to lack of training. Worse, some unscrupulous retailers will actually mix cement in with the fertilizer – you can imagine the devastating effect this would have on crops, on soil, and on farmers’ livelihoods.
Mr. Ali, the executive from Syngenta who was gracious enough to talk with me, said his company is committed to providing technical and safety training to farmers in order to mitigate the extensive exploitation farmers have experienced. In fact, Syngenta staffs a small army of 1,200 community workers throughout Bangladesh to do outreach and training. Mr. Ali reported each of those outreach workers has daily contact with up to 30 farm families.
In addition, Syngenta has franchised about 7,000 exclusive outlets selling hybrid seeds and chemical inputs to farmers. The training of franchise owners is done through the Boghata Learning & Development Center and Development Wheel has been involved in this process to ensure accurate information is reaching vulnerable farmers.
Naturally, I asked Mr. Ali about seeds. He said Syngenta has increased its market share from 1% to 10% in just 3 years in Bangladesh, with seeds mostly coming from Thailand,India, and Italy. I specifically asked him about genetically modified seeds. He told me Syngenta has patented 2 varieties – brinjal (eggplant) and soybean – but the government of Bangladesh has up to now denied permission for an GM seeds to be used in this country. The seeds Syngenta imports to Bangladesh are mostly hybrid vegetable varieties.
As I spoke later with Development Wheel’s executive director about the conversation, I mentioned Syngenta’s efforts to introduce GM seeds into agriculture in Bangladesh. He assured me DEW would organize to protest if the government ever indicated a change in policy and I assured him I would be back on a plan to Bangladesh to join in!