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Syngenta's CEO concerned about U.S. and China's tension, impacts on agricltureqrcode

Jun. 4, 2024

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Jun. 4, 2024


By Patrick Thomas

For years, Syngenta Group has been considered a critical partner to thousands of American farmers. Its new chief executive is trying to ward off a different perception: that it poses a threat to U.S. national security. 

Jeff Rowe in January took over the agriculture company, which has its headquarters in Switzerland and is a subsidiary of China National Chemical, a state-owned enterprise known as ChemChina.


Chief Executive Jeff Rowe says that the information Syngenta collects from U.S. farmers is handled responsibly. PHOTO: ANTHONY COLLINS/SYNGENTA

Since ChemChina’s $43 billion takeover in 2017, the company has faced mounting roadblocks to its business in the U.S., where it remains the biggest pesticide supplier by sales to farms and a major seller of crop seeds.

Syngenta owns about 1,500 acres of U.S. farmland for research, development and regulatory trials. But several states are fortifying restrictions on foreign companies’ ownership of U.S. farmland. Some state and federal lawmakers say they want to ensure that the Chinese government can’t use farmland to facilitate spying or wield its influence over food supplies in a conflict.

Rowe, a former DuPont Pioneer executive who ran Syngenta’s largest business unit before becoming CEO, is a critical part of the company’s efforts. Despite living in Switzerland, he travels back to his hometown of Princeton, Ill., a city of about 8,000 people, a few times a year to help plant and harvest a couple thousand acres of corn and soybeans.

When meeting with skeptical policymakers, Syngenta details the company’s impact on the agricultural economy in a given state, how many employees it has and what new products it is bringing to market for farmers, he said. Lawmakers frequently ask him about the data the company collects from its farmers, which he says is handled responsibly.

″Despite the publicity, we’re out in the local communities—farmers know us and respect us,″ said Rowe, 51 years old, while riding a seed planter at his parents’ family farm in Princeton. ″If I see someone on the street in Princeton, they think ‘that’s Jeff Rowe. I know who that is—he’s not a Chinese spy.’″

Syngenta’s geopolitical balancing act also comes at a time when agriculture companies are facing a pullback in farmer spending as grain prices decline and crop chemical prices deflate. Farmer income is expected to drop nearly 30% in 2024, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That could temper farmers’ spending with firms such as Syngenta, whose sales in 2023 fell 4% from a year earlier, to $32 billion.

Syngenta is working to cut costs in its office operations and supply chain for producing its farm products, Rowe said. Plans to pursue an initial public offering in China or exchanges in Europe remain on the shelf, for now. Geopolitical issues make a New York listing less likely, he said.


Several times a year, Jeff Rowe returns to Illinois to work on his parents’ farm. PHOTO: PATRICK THOMAS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

U.S.-China tensions have been on the rise since regulators cleared the purchase of Syngenta. The Trump and Biden administrations have sparred with Beijing over tariffs on steel and aluminum, export controls on semiconductors and the ownership of TikTok’s U.S. operations.

Concerns about China have extended to farm country. Grand Forks, N.D., last year stopped the construction of a Chinese-owned $700 million corn mill after a U.S. Air Force official said it could be a national security risk. 

Likewise, Smithfield Foods has faced criticism over its operations and land holdings since China’s WH Group—which is publicly traded in Hong Kong—bought it. Leaders of Smithfield, the nation’s largest pork producer, have also pushed back on the criticism and said its ownership has helped it grow.

″Chinese ownership of companies need careful review because you can have access to information concerning seeds, technology, and so forth that could be significantly compromising if it’s used in the wrong way,″ said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in an interview.

Last fall, Arkansas became the first U.S. state to order a Chinese-owned company, Syngenta, to sell its farmland. The order called for Syngenta to sell within two years 160 acres where it had an agricultural research facility with a few dozen employees. 

″This isn’t about where you’re from, it’s about where your loyalties lie,″ said Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in an emailed statement.

A Syngenta spokesman said the state’s decision was shortsighted, adding that the company has owned the property for years.


Syngenta supplies seeds as well as pesticide to U.S. farms. PHOTO: PENG ZIYANG/ZUMA PRESS

Iowa’s Senate passed a bill in April to shield some of the world’s biggest chemical makers from certain pesticide lawsuits. The protection excluded Chinese-owned companies, including Syngenta.

Roughly two dozen states have passed laws—and more have proposed rules—to restrict foreign ownership of farmland, with some specifically crafted to target China, according to the nonprofit National Agricultural Law Center. Chinese-owned entities hold an estimated 1% of U.S. farmland, or roughly 350,000 acres. 

Rowe said his role as CEO requires an understanding of both the U.S. and China and an ability to bridge the relationship between the two countries. Syngenta said that it isn’t a political organization and that legislators’ actions are potentially harmful for U.S. farmers and the agricultural market.

Syngenta competitors also see an opening, aiming to stoke concerns about the company’s ownership when marketing their products to growers. At a farm trade show in Illinois last year, Corteva handed out red, white and blue bags saying ″American since 1926.″

Greg Rebman, an Illinois farmer, says he uses Syngenta pesticides for their effectiveness. If a conflict were to break out between the U.S. and China, he said he would be more hesitant to buy Syngenta’s products—but, for now, it’s a secondary issue.

″They are so big and their manufacturing is so prevalent,″ Rebman said.

Keeping tabs on farmer sentiment is critical to Syngenta’s strategy. The company says that it rarely feels the effects of competitors’ marketing tactics and that growers trust the Syngenta brand. Rowe said his family’s farm uses Syngenta’s seeds and sprays for its crops. 

″Sometimes there might be some misperception about what markets we’re prioritizing, but I say clearly the U.S. continues to be at the top of the list,″ Rowe said.


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