North Carolina’s global agricultural biotechnology leadership traces directly to origins at what has become Syngenta’s Research Triangle Park campus.
But it wasn’t always Syngenta. And if regulators approve this week’s $43 billion buyout offer from Chinese state-owned China National Chemical Corp., aka ChemChina, it’s likely to remain in North Carolina, but it won’t be Syngenta much longer.
That’s the nature of the global corporate churn that has become a hallmark of big agricultural, chemical, food and pharmaceutical companies. Get bigger, get gobbled or get out of the way.
Syngenta’s acceptance of ChemChina’s cash offer came after the Swiss-based company rebuffed three offers over the past four years from Monsanto. But the huge Chinese conglomerate has so far won. And some observers see a probability that ChemChina ownership could benefit North Carolina.
“Syngenta is a significant stakeholder in the North Carolina agricultural ecosystem through both employment numbers and its investment in innovation,” said Scott Johnson, vice president of agricultural biotechnology for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Syngenta has about 1,200 employees in North Carolina and more than 28,000 worldwide.
“ChemChina has demonstrated a strategic and pragmatic approach with other investments the company has made in U.S. operations,” he added. “We expect that as a result, it will continue to value the advantages provided within North Carolina, as the largest cluster of high-tech agriculture in the world.”
Some inside speculation held that if Monsanto had prevailed in its attempts to buy Syngenta, most of the North Carolina operations, including hundreds of employees, would have been eliminated or moved to the company’s other facilities such as its headquarters in Missouri.
In fact, Monsanto may have fed that speculation when it announced in October 2015 that it would be closing its RTP R&D site by the end of 2016, relocating about a third of the facility’s 75 employees to Missouri, and eliminating the jobs of the remainder.
ChemChina is looking ahead to the need to feed one of the world’s largest countries from an increasingly weakened agricultural infrastructure. China’s farmland is dwindling, not only because of urban sprawl, but also because toxins throughout the environment are undermining the fertility of the soil.
North Carolina is well poised to help. Its prominent position in this week’s big agricultural drum roll was established over 31 years ago, when Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., was offered a job by agricultural and pharmaceutical conglomerate CIBA-Geigy (now, two consolidations later, Syngenta). Ciba wanted her to establish a new agricultural biotechnology laboratory in the Research Triangle Park—hire the people, erect a new laboratory facility and develop new seed products.
Chilton was selected for the cutting-edge assignment because she had led the research team at Washington University in St. Louis that produced the world’s first genetically modified plants. The “mother of genetic engineering” still has a lab in a building bearing her name on Syngenta’s RTP campus.
And the RTP site is not Syngenta’s only North Carolina facility. The company’s North American headquarters for its insecticide and herbicide business, Syngenta Crop Protection, is in Greensboro. That, too, is an important asset for ChemChina.
Observers say it could take regulators many months to decide whether to allow the ChemChina purchase. Meanwhile, other churn continues throughout the industry. Dow and DuPont are merging, for example. And even as Monsanto retreats to its headquarters in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur to lick its wounds, there are rumors that two other big ag players with major North Carolina footprints — Bayer and BASF — might be in its sights.
Change is a given these days. And in this case, it isn’t chump change.
But beyond the currency transactions, these kinds of events also have a huge human impact. They always bring uncertainty, fear, loss amidst brittle hopes for betterment for everyone involved. Syngenta has been an amazing corporate citizen, contributing mightily to North Carolina’s ag biotech community: to education, to the state’s core environment of collaboration, partnership. A get-er-done commitment. Syngenta has always represented excellence, accessibility, brilliance, great people doing great things.
That might be the throw-down for ChemChina. ChemChina will need to absorb and retain talented Syngenta scientists, technicians, specialists of all stripes, most with Western educations and backgrounds.
North Carolina has a lot of resources dedicated to its reputation as a global magnet for these kinds of challenges. And even though ChemChina is buying a global Swiss conglomerate, North Carolina has a big role to play.
(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center