Each day when the sun rises, American farmers are already hard at work in their fields. The nation is home to about two million farms, and a vast majority of those are family operations. The people who run these farms make up less than two percent of our population, yet they feed millions of people at home and abroad. And with populations growing, demand on American agriculture will only increase.
The days of simply turning the soil, planting a seed, and reaping a harvest are long gone. American agriculture is a competitive big money game with a lot on the line. Farmers who battle nature and the elements need the best crop protection and seed products in their arsenal, and creating those products requires top levels of R&D, innovation, and investment.
Syngenta has been instrumental in developing genetically modified crops since the 1990s. Today, it is one of many innovators leveraging gene editing technologies and other methods to develop favorable traits that will help farmers be more productive and profitable. These products, which increase yields and decrease costs, require a substantial financial investment. Once they’re developed, they require a strong defense.
Mark Smith, senior assistant general counsel, helps provide that defense at Syngenta. The global company, based in Switzerland, operates in ninety countries and generates more than $13 billion in annual revenue. Its parent company is the Syngenta Group.
“Not only am I shaping strategy, but I also have an important role to play in a company that works to provide the safe and effective products that farmers want and the world needs.”
The company provides two main products: crop protection pesticides and seeds for the world’s major crops, as well as vegetables and flowers. Syngenta’s scientists monitor how crops develop resistance to products that protect them from insects, weeds, and diseases. They then screen thousands of new compounds, run countless trials, pursue regulatory approval, complete independent reviews, study health and environmental impacts, measure efficacy, and pursue new innovations. The process includes hundreds of studies, and each country where a product will be used has its own regulatory standards. Authorities regularly re-evaluate the data.
Smith says bringing just one new crop protection product to the market can take more than a decade and can require more than a $280 million investment. As one of the company’s key litigation managers, he stands ready to defend its products and IP. When customers, competitors, or others challenge the safety or efficacy of Syngenta’s products in legal actions, Smith relies on the wealth of information available to him.
“My colleagues have gone through all the complex review steps in a multiyear process and there is a lot of precise science behind the creation of these products,” he says, adding that he works with numerous internal departments, regulators, and strong outside defense partners to respond to each and every dispute.
Unlike many of his colleagues at Syngenta, Smith didn’t grow up on a farm. He was born in Texas, went to college and law school at Georgetown, and started his career as a litigation associate at a large firm. That role gave him wide exposure to a variety of cases in construction, IP, contracts, and other areas. As Smith progressed in his career, he assisted on some agriculture cases but grew frustrated as a junior-level associate with bigger aspirations.
“I wanted more collaboration and a greater strategic role over case strategy,” he recalls. He started looking to move in-house. When a rare litigation position opened at Syngenta, Smith seized the opportunity.
The transition helped Smith realize both of his goals. “Not only am I shaping strategy, but I also have an important role to play in a company that works to provide the safe and effective products that farmers want and the world needs,” he says.
He’s also collaborating more with other departments and across borders. Smith has volunteered to participate on various teams including one that analyzed costs and consequences associated with shutting down a production facility.
He also served as legal’s sole representative on the crop protection production and supply leadership team. The important group helps Syngenta get its products to its customers in the most efficient way possible. Smith handled legal matters including logistics and warehouse agreements, supply contracts with third-party vendors, and tolling agreements with manufacturers. He also offered insight on issues related to environmental remediation requirements and other key health and safety issues.
“I want people to know that we’re a service function. We’re here to help the business achieve its goals and execute its plan.”
These activities add value and help build legal’s credibility. “I want people to know that we’re a service function. We’re here to help the business responsibly achieve its goals and execute its plan,” Smith says. As Syngenta enters the fast-growing biologicals market, leaders in marketing, product safety, and other key departments are coming to his team for ideas, advice, and input.
Syngenta is also increasing its commitment to sustainability and sharpening its focus on helping farmers mitigate the increasing impacts of climate change. The company hired a chief sustainability officer and is executing a “Good Growth Plan” to help lower agriculture’s carbon footprint and help farmers navigate extreme weather associated with climate change.
The company, the customer, the competitors, the crops, and the category are all changing. The job is unpredictable—but that’s one of the things Smith likes about his work. “No two days are the same, and I never know exactly what tomorrow will bring. It’s fun,” he says. “I have to stay sharp.”
There are indeed a lot of unknowns, but a few things are certain. The sun will rise, and farmers will plant their crops. Syngenta will produce the products that help those farmers feed the world, and Smith’s team will help protect the company as it grows.