Q&A With Syngenta’s Global Seeds President
Jeff Rowe (’95 agricultural business), president global seeds for Syngenta, earned the 2018 Agricultural Business Club’s Outstanding Alumni Award. The award recognizes Rowe’s contribution to agriculture and his career achievements which include more than 21 years in several roles at DuPont Pioneer. In his current role, Rowe is responsible for global strategy and execution for Syngenta’s Seeds business. Rowe also earned a law degree from Drake Law School, and a Global Executive MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business and the London School of Economics.
DURING YOUR TIME AT IOWA STATE WHO PROVIDED INSTRUMENTAL DIRECTION IN YOUR LIFE AND WHY?
I had such a great experience at Iowa State University with so many professors it’s difficult to name the most influential. There were, however, a couple of classes that had a big impact on my career. Neil Harl’s ag law class was a game-changer for me because it introduced me to the law in an entirely new way. For the first time, I saw the law as a critical tool for farmers and agriculture leaders. It had such a big impact on me that I went on to earn a law degree. Dermot Hayes taught an excellent advanced commodity trading class, which inspired me to work as a commodity trader for a few years. My adviser, Ron Dieter, was also a great mentor for me during my time in Ames.
WHAT IS THE NEXT GREAT AGRICULTURAL ADVANCEMENT? HOW WILL IT IMPACT FARMERS AND SOCIETY, TOO?
Data science will drive the next big advancement in agriculture. Not just predictive, but new prescriptive analytics capabilities developed in other industries have the power to accelerate innovation in agriculture. One example is the technology used by Netflix to make personalized viewing suggestions. While a plant breeder has trial data from only a limited number of locations and years, we can use the same types of preference algorithms from the video streaming world to predict hybrid performance in untested environments. Advancements in data science, coupled with sophisticated genetic tools will not only improve productivity, but also help create a more sustainable agriculture system.
FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, HOW DOES THE PUBLIC REGARD SCIENCE AND HOW SHOULD THEY? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR AGRICULTURE?
Today only 2% of the U.S. population works in any connection with agriculture, and there is less and less informed discussion about plant science and breeding. The decision in Europe to regulate gene editing in the same way as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is a good example of this. This type of nonscience based decision is not good for agriculture or society. It can be challenging, but we — industry, farmers, associations — need to do a better job at telling our story.
WHY IS SYNGENTA COMMITTING BILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE IN AGRICULTURE?
Climate change is a threat to us all. Farmers are on the front line, feeling the effects of droughts, floods and other forms of extreme weather. Agriculture needs to be part of the solution and, if we get it right, can be a net positive in the global climate challenge. We’re committing $2 billion over five years to advance sustainable agriculture, and to reduce the carbon intensity of Syngenta’s operations by at least 50% by 2030.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE NEW STUDENTS ENROLLING IN THE COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE AND LIFE SCIENCES?
My advice to students is to seek to obtain the broadest, most diverse educational experience possible. While my experience in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was exceptional, what really helped me was complementing that core education with totally unrelated courses. For example, I took a graduate level religion class, I studied abroad for a semester, I worked in a research laboratory, and I earned a minor in psychology — that is a rather untraditional background for an ag business undergrad. I see many students get too locked into their curriculum and they could be missing out on some excellent opportunities to greatly broaden their thinking and experiences. One of the most important skills a student needs to learn is how to interact with different people from different backgrounds. And one of the best ways to learn this skill is to get a diverse educational experience.
HOW DOES A COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION IMPACT SUCCESS?
There is a lot of evidence that shows diverse teams outperform and are more innovative. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive is a priority for me, and I spend a lot of time talking to employees across Syngenta about this. We recently had a month-long campaign focused on mental health. Not everyone is comfortable, but the most important thing is we start to have open conversations. Agriculture in the U.S. has a long way to go, but I see there is a lot of good practice across the industry and groups like the Cultivating Change Foundation are doing a fantastic job. It’s a journey.
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?
If we can get to a point where it’s the norm to have balanced representation at senior levels in organizations — whether that’s gender, ethnicity, age — this will be a huge step forward, and a lot will follow from this. But what I would like to see is an environment — even a society — where we have true diversity of thought. This will enable us to bring the best minds to the table to solve some of the world’s biggest problems including how we help farmers sustainably and safely feed the world.