We are all familiar with the traditional model of public-private partnerships for development. There’s a worthy call to action and maybe a little pot of money from governments. Then big corporations sign up with vague promises of donations “in cash and in kind”. After a few years, a self-congratulatory report appears saying that the partners have decided that they have all done really well. This evaluation is based on a process of, no doubt, rigorous self-assessment. There is an agreeable dinner at which to congratulate one another.

Maybe this was never going to work for Syngenta. The Swiss agro-chemicals group stands accused of decimating Europe’s bee population, foisting GM seeds on the world and carrying on the worst traits of its parent groups (Novartis and Astra Zeneca). The accusations may or may not be fair but they guarantee that the company’s presence will raise questions.

So, today, Syngenta announced a truly brave seven-year plan to “increase average productivity of leading crops without using more chemicals, land and water.” (according to the Financial Times, free registration required.) The Chief Executive says that he knows that people want “to minimise use of pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and fertiliser” — quite a statement when the latter three make up most of your business. It’s called the Good Growth Plan. USAID and the Fair Labor Association have signed up to constitute the “public” side of this partnership

Here’s the bit that will really have corporate social responsibility types everywhere rattled, they say their progress towards the 2020 goal will be externally audited each year. Admittedly, the details of the auditing are skimpy but the goals are admirably clear and numerical

  • Make crops more efficient: increase average productivity of the world’s major crops by 20 percent without using more land, water or inputs
  • Rescue more farmland: improve the fertility of 10 million hectares of farmland on the brink of degradation
  • Help biodiversity flourish: enhance biodiversity on 5 million hectares of farmland
  • Empower smallholders: reach 20 million smallholders and enable them to increase productivity by 50 percent
  • Help people stay safe: train 20 million farm workers on labor safety, especially in developing countries
  • Look after every worker: strive for fair labour conditions throughout our entire supply chain network

They are setting up a system of reference farms that they will measure.

I haven’t read the full details so you should but this will set a nasty precedent for the admirers of fluffy compacts and grand-sounding accords. If a wicked GM seed company is prepared to allow independent measurement of its impact across a range of settings, what about a highly-principled healthcare company?

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Image: Syngenta