Recognizing Leaders: Jonathan Seabrook, Syngenta

Jonathan Seabrook is the Group Head of Corporate Affairs at Syngenta. Jonathan has more than 12 years’ experience with Syngenta and was appointed Head of Corporate Affairs in May 2007. In this role he leads a global team which has responsibility for communicating the company’s contribution to society and for managing relationships with a broad range of stakeholders including governments and non-governmental organizations, investors, the media and employees.
GlobeScan co-CEO Christophe Guibeleguiet recently interviewed Jonathan to gain insight on the value Syngenta puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

You have been with Syngenta since 2003. Over the last 12 years, which non-financial challenges for a business like Syngenta have you seen emerging and growing?

We have noticed a number of changes over recent years. First of all, we operate within a highly regulated and sometimes controversial industry where maintaining our license to operate has become increasingly challenging. This is particularly true in Europe where the regulatory framework is often highly politicized.
Another major trend that has emerged in many countries is people’s attitude towards risk and the desire to de-risk as many things as possible. We’ve seen this in our industry and is exemplified in what we call the Agricultural Disconnect, wherein attitudes to technology in agriculture differ markedly between rural and urban populations. When you ask urban people about technology they tend associate it with mobile telephony, iPads, etc. However, when you ask what technology in agriculture means, the views and levels of acceptance are quite different and it’s all about fear of chemicals, GM seeds or pesticides.
We are trying to depolarize this debate with our Good Growth Plan by being more transparent and demonstrating our contribution beyond just the financials and on biodiversity, soil, water and people in terms of farmers and rural communities.

Talking about transparency, what is Syngenta’s position on this?

For us it has been a gradual and evolutionary journey. With our Good Growth Plan, we increasingly talk about things that haven’t gone well as well as those that have. In the past, classic PR was putting a positive spin on everything. We try to give a more balanced view in our annual report – we talk about areas of difficulty and controversy. We try to be open about that and have a dialogue with our stakeholders.
All of this has been driven by big data and social media. I am optimistic that the big data revolution and greater transparency will be an opportunity to demonstrate our contribution profoundly and break through some of the myths that surround the work we do – the concerns around pesticides, GM, human environmental health, chemicals in the soil, or residues on vegetables. I believe we are doing things the right way. Our challenge is to engage people in these discussions and demonstrate the value we bring to society. In this evolution towards more transparency, technology will play a major transformational role; in a few years’ time people will be able to go to a supermarket and use their smartphone to scan the food in a much more sophisticated way and understand where the food on the supermarket shelf has come from, all the way back to the farmer who grew it and all the steps in between. Syngenta embraces this type of change which is why I am optimistic.

How much has your stakeholder landscape changed now compared to five years ago?

It is definitively evolving. For instance, the NGO community is more willing to work with the private sector. You see that from the World Economic Forum in Davos all the way to the ground in Africa, South East Asia or Latin America. In emerging economies particularly, there is less distrust of working with business than in Europe or the US and this despite a breakdown in trust of private companies which was exacerbated by the financial crisis. In Europe, the political environment is still challenging with mixed views on pesticides and GM technology. It hasn’t got worse but it is challenging.
At the same time, policymakers and governments particularly in emerging markets are focusing more on food security. It is a good thing because the policies are taken seriously and there is willingness on both sides for public / private partnership.
Syngenta engages quite actively in partnerships with food companies and food retailers. We also try to engage more and more with the younger generation around the food security challenge.  Stimulating interest from young people in farming and food is important.

What value does stakeholder engagement bring to Syngenta’s corporate strategy?

We are a heavily regulated industry, the need for which we fully support. Strict, science-based and carefully applied regulations are vital. We need active partnerships with all stakeholders – NGOs, local communities and farmers in particular for making things happen on the ground. And we need to ensure that environmental and community issues are manifested both in our own development process and in the regulatory framework.

What will a global business like Syngenta need to do to be successful in its engagement with stakeholders over the coming years?

There is a fair amount of distrust among certain groups of stakeholders around pesticides and GM technology. Engagement is important to depolarize an often heated debate around these issues, and to demonstrate our contribution to communities, farmers and the environment.
We will need to continue having a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders on food, food security and agriculture. It is important for us to continue showing collaborative leadership on this debate via our Good Growth Plan and proactive engagement.