Syngenta dashes hopes for hybrids

Some producers bemoan decision to temporarily stop research 
into hybrid wheat in North America, while others are relieved

The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association is upset that Syngenta is temporarily halting its hybrid wheat breeding program in Canada.

“It’s a huge blow to profitability on our farms,” said Alberta vice-president Stephen Vandervalk.

Syngenta says it is continuing to invest in hybrid wheat but is reallocating its global resources.

“We are prioritizing our R & D investments for hybrid wheat in Europe, where our program is most advanced and where we are closest to being able to successfully commercialize this innovation,” Chris Davison, head of corporate affairs with Syngenta Canada, said in an email.

“We will look to transfer our experience in Europe to North America when ready. In the meantime, in North America, we will continue to invest in R & D for our varietal portfolio to ensure growers have access to strong, competitive varieties, something we have been doing in Canada for over 40 years.”

Many wheat growers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of hybrid wheat because wheat has steadily been losing ground to canola and other more profitable crops.

Vandervalk is annoyed that growers in Europe will have access to the technology long before those in Canada.

He said Europe has better access to markets and a superior transportation system and is now poised to win the yield battle.

“If we can’t compete at that, then we’re in really big, big trouble and I mean big trouble, where I don’t know what’s going to happen to western Canadian agriculture,” said Vandervalk.

“I know that’s maybe dramatic, but if more decisions like this are made, that’s where we’re going.”

Terry Boehm of the National Farmers Union said that is “nonsense.”

“I don’t think that Syngenta closing down hybrid wheat is going to alter our competitiveness with the Europeans at all,” he said.

Boehm said European farmers have always had better yields because of environmental conditions, the length of their growing season and the kinds of wheat they plant.

He said a lot of farmers are indifferent about hybrid wheat and some are opposed to it because it will make growers dependent on a few seed suppliers and will drive up seed prices.

Vandervalk can’t understand the mindset of farmers worried about wheat going the way of canola.

“Are you guys out of your minds?” he said. “You’re saying that you don’t want the industry to go the way of canola, which is your most profitable crop.”

Vandervalk said nobody is going to force farmers to buy hybrid wheat if they don’t want to.

Syngenta is one of the leaders in hybrid wheat development. It had repeatedly stated that it was on track to commercially launch a product in North America by the end of this decade.

So what happened?

One clue could be contained in a 2017 interview with Darcy Pawlik, who at the time was Syngenta’s North American cereals portfolio lead.

He said the company wasn’t sure if it was going to enter the market with its first generation of hybrids or wait for the second generation to be ready.

“We’re making some decisions as to whether they’re good enough for the market. Is it what we want to enter with?” said Pawlik.

“The stuff that’s coming behind it continues to look better and better.”

Boehm had another way of putting it.

“They’re running into more difficulty than they care to admit,” he said.

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