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Not your dad’s plant breeding stationNot your dad’s plant breeding station

Syngenta’s new seed research and development facility in northern Illinois is designed to turbocharge the research timeline, and let scientists and farmers work more closely together.

Holly Spangler

July 28, 2023

4 Min Read
A group of five men stand behind a red ribbon while one man cuts the ribbon with giant scissors
RIBBON CUT: The new Syngenta Seeds R&D Innovation Center opened in Malta, Ill., this summer, with 88 acres and 100,000 square feet of facilities. Pictured are (from left) Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group; Eric Boeck, regional director for North American seeds; Warren Kruger, field crops seeds development for North America; Trevor Hohls, global head of seeds development; and Justin Wolfe, president of global seeds. Photos by Holly Spangler

You don’t have to look far within Syngenta’s new seed research facility at Malta, Ill., to realize this isn’t your grandpa’s plant breeding business. Or even your dad’s plant breeding business.


Justin Wolfe, president of global seeds for Syngenta, says the new 88-acre Syngenta Seeds R&D Innovation Center is the picture of modern plant breeding, incorporating data sensors, artificial intelligence, decision science and more.

“There’s a big difference between traditional plant breeding and modern plant breeding,” he says.

Traditional plant breeding was done with crops in fields, walking plots and collecting data. Today, modern plant breeding is taking data from sensors and using decision science coupled with artificial intelligence to do predictive analysis on what products will work in what environments, Wolfe says. Plus, they have more data on the sequence in the genome.

The upshot? Scientists have significantly more information at hand to predict and pick hybrids.

“Modern breeding is 10 or 20 times more efficient. That means we’ll bring products faster to farmers,” Wolfe says, adding that Syngenta has shortened its product life cycle by two years and has doubled genetic pipeline diversity over the past 10 years.

Traditionally, it took 10 to 15 years to bring a new biotechnology product to market, at a cost of $100 million.

“That means less cost, more efficiency, more reasonable price,” he adds.

4 scientists in white lab coats working at a table in a lab with plants along one side of the room

The company says it will use this new facility to continue shortening the development time for seed technology. Located in the heart of northern Illinois, the research facility is about an hour from Syngenta’s global seed headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill.

Why Malta? Wolfe says they have another research and development site in Slater, Iowa, but they wanted one in Illinois because it’s at a crossroads of the core I-states. It’s also close to O’Hare International Airport, for international visitors, and has proximity to talented university graduates.

“And it’s good ground,” he adds. “It gives us an environment to be able to do really good testing, in an ecosystem that covers a lot of the farm belt.”

They also want to better collaborate with each other, and with farmers.

“We want to have a site where we drive collaboration with engineering and automation, plots in the field — all these different special functions,” Wolfe says. “This site really enables that collaboration and brings the best state-of-the-art equipment, technology and opportunity for scientists to do their best.”

This new site will be used to improve germplasm performance. It also will demonstrate regenerative cropping systems. Syngenta, a Swiss-based company, spends nearly $1.5 billion every year on seed research and development.

a woman with long brown hair in a blue shirt gives a presentation

Wolfe says abnormally dry years teach scientists a lot about hybrids, and while 2023 has been off to a rough start for farmers, it’s been great for drought scientists. That’s because they can see how hybrids actually hold up, right in the Midwest. Wolfe says companies that develop drought-resistance technology typically put those plots out West.

“Scientists love this kind of year, because they can test what those hybrids will do in stress. As a scientist, the more stress, the better, because they can weed out poorer-performing hybrids,” he says.

It’s a lot of data and a lot of information, something farmers have in spades. But Wolfe says the point of their new facility is to help farmers make that data meaningful so they can make better decisions.

“Then they can maximize their situation no matter the environment: Explode yields when it’s good, and maximize yield opportunity when it’s tough,” he says.

Check out the interview with Syngenta Group CEO Erik Fyrwald below:

Farm Progress · Eric Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta, talks weather, AI, soil health

Read more about:

Plant Breeding

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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