SYNGENTA is not making any specific promises, but it expects to release chemical alternatives to glyphosate if the popular broad spectrum herbicide is pulled off the market.
The seed and farm chemical giant's crop protection president, Jon Parr, says new non-selective product chemistry from his company could be available to farmers in five to seven years.
While Mr Parr would not make assumptions about potential threats to Bayer's widely used glyphosate, or its continued registration in Australian or elsewhere, the product has faced increasing public scrutiny and regulatory pressure this year.
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Germany and France announced plans to ban the herbicide by 2023, concerned about its danger to ecosystems.
Other European countries have restricted its use as have Thailand and Vietnam and city authorities in Europe and North America, and US courts have approved big compensation payments to cancer patients by the German-based Bayer which now owns the Monsanto-developed technology, best known as Roundup.
We already have some interesting and exciting herbicides that will contribute to farmers' broad spectrum weed control
Mr Parr said Australian farmers he met recently were asking if the industry could find a replacement for existing non-selective herbicide products, particularly in light of the rise in potential regulation threats to glyphosate.
"There is likely to be pressure on these products - in fact, it's happening around the world already," he said while visiting from Syngenta's global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.
The all-purpose knockdown is even under new scrutiny in Australia, with Victoria's Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning reviewing how glyphosate products are used on public land.
Compensation law firm, Maurice Blackburn, has flagged a potential Australian class action against local councils in relation to glyphosate use.
Mr Parr believed existing non-selective herbicides were well and truly fit for purpose and should be maintained.
"But if they are restricted or removed, then given time, there will be alternatives," he said.
"We already have some interesting and exciting herbicides that will contribute to farmers' broad spectrum weed control.
"It's quite a new product option. It could be five to seven years away."
Strong innovation push
IN fact, Syngenta's overall innovation pipeline was as strong as he had ever seen it, and Australia was an important and tough counter-seasonal testing ground for potential products emerging from European, US and Asian laboratories.
The company's robust synthetic chemistry offering was also being increasingly supported by biological options to assist nutrient uptake, boost crop resilience to weather stresses, or avoid residue risks in freshly harvested produce.
"We recognise the flow of innovation is critical to our business, and our industry, and we've made great progress in the past three years," he said.
"We've been quite successful with some fantastic molecules, including a fungicide for canola and horticulture (Miravis) released a year ago, which farmers are finding extremely attractive."
"Certainly, the hurdle heights for new active ingredients, and to maintain existing registrations, are going up.
People justifiably want less expensive, more effective and safer products, but that's what we do in our business."
Glyphosate attack worrying
However, Mr Parr said current levels of negative discussion and litigation action directed at glyphosate were a big worry for the crop protection sector, as well as the rigorous compliance regimes developed to give consumers confidence about products on the market.
The situation glyphosate is in is greatly concerning ... US litigation action has attacked the very basis of how our industry does business
Roundup had been part of the agricultural marketplace since the mid 1970s and subjected to thousands of trials and exhaustive reviews by regulatory authorities worldwide.
"In all cases they have found it safe and fit for purpose," he said.
"The situation glyphosate is in is greatly concerning, particularly because US litigation action has attacked the very basis of how our industry does business."
Farm chemical supply chains were among the world's most highly regulated sectors.
Up to a decade of research, development and compound testing programs were involve before active ingredients and new products were released.
"Products are also scrutinised for two or three years under very prescribed rules before they are registered for sale, and afterwards," Mr Parr said.
"We fully understand the need to do this and go along with it.
"These regulations also gives us a very high degree of confidence in our products."
Regulatory process ignored
HOWEVER, he feared regulators were being "completely ignored by new assessments on a product made in a courtroom process".
"We've been following the rules and we have not seen anything we should have been reacting to," he said.
"The whole regulatory and testing process is being attacked from outside the regulatory framework.
In the 1990s we saw the industry registering tens of new products annually, but now I'd suggest the figure is more likely in the low single digits
Mr Parr believed it quite likely manufacturers and regulators would now need to adopt processes to mitigate the emerging legal risks.
In some cases that may see a further slowdown in the progress of industry-wide innovation to improve the quality of farm chemicals on the market.
Broadly speaking, he said most major crop protection players companies had, on average, scaled back to introducing just one active ingredient to the market every year.
"In the 1990s we saw the industry registering tens of new products annually, but now I'd suggest the figure is more likely in the low single digits," he said.
"We've set our own target to significantly increase our innovation work, but it's becoming more onerous to find something better than what is already available and bring new innovation to the market."