Ponsi Trivisvavet, MBA '99:
A GMO approach to sustainable crops
Ponsi Trivisvavet has spent the past six years thinking about how to help
farmers feed the world. In India and Africa, how can growers increase their corn
yields, which are far below worldwide averages? And in Southeast Asia, how can
farmers boost their production of rice to meet the population’s demand?
After working for McKinsey & Company as a consultant for five years, in 2008 Trivisvavet plunged into the world of agribusiness when she joined Syngenta, a global Swiss agribusiness that markets seeds and agrochemicals. Since her undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering, Trivisvavet concedes there was much to learn when she was hired as Syngenta’s head of strategy for seeds. "I won’t pretend that it was easy at all," she says, "but I have to admit that agriculture and its technologies are fascinating."
Her focus on corn began in 2011, when she became Syngenta’s global head of corn, responsible for developing solutions to improve crop yields in developing countries and help farmers in other parts of the world. In India, for example, corn production averages 40 bushels per acre, less than a quarter of the average 170-bushels-per-acre yield in the United States.
To boost the low yields, Trivisvavet says, growers in developing countries must change their agronomic practices and adopt more sustainable products, including genetically modified and hybrid corn seeds, which are commonly used in the United States and are among Syngenta’s main products.
When she became regional director of Syngenta North America in July, working out of the Minnetonka, Minn., office, Trivisvavet expanded her focus to improving the productivity of several crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and vegetables. Syngenta, a company that is involved in biotechnology and genomic research, is the sole developer of a genetically modified corn grown specifically for ethanol, which increases throughput while reducing the use of water and energy in the production process, Trivisvavet says.
While the approval of genetically modified corn in the United States and other countries has drawn protests, Trivisvavet says such technology is needed to ensure sustainable growth of crops. "There’s no way we can feed the world’s hungry without technology, without investment, without having the private sector work with the public sector to lift up the lives of the farmers and the population," she says. "Feeding the world is what keeps me going."