How Syngenta is Using Data to Feed the Future World

Insights into the Syngenta Crop Challenge, an open innovation contest to breed better seeds to meet growing global food demands.

During the next 30 years, the world's population is projected to grow to almost 10 billion people [1] and the demand for food by 2050 will be 60% greater than it is today [2]. However, agricultural land won't be able to keep up with the pace, unless we’re able to sustainably grow more food. One of the biggest issues facing the world today is figuring out how to produce more food for more people with less land and less water.

In order to meet this challenge, the agriculture industry has to produce more food in the next 50 years than it has done in the last 10,000 [3]. Yet, currently, resources are being used 50% faster than the planet can sustain. [4]

Making Every Acre Count

To help improve global food security, leading agriculture company Syngenta launched its Good Growth Plan in 2013, encompassing six commitments to be achieved by 2020. One of these commitments is to increase the average productivity of the world's major crops by 20% without using more land, water or inputs. It is an ambitious goal and one that the company is hoping to accomplish by leveraging big data.

In search of new solutions, Syngenta teamed up with the INFORMS Analytics Society to host an annual open innovation contest on The Syngenta Crop Challenge asks participants to use data to create new strategies to address global food demands. And it casts its net wide to get fresh perspectives from outside the industry.

“A lot of submissions are from industries and universities not associated with agriculture,” said Greg Doonan, head of novel algorithm development, Syngenta. “That's one of the big positives – the Challenge lends itself to collaboration with analytics experts who might not have thought of agriculture as a place to use their talents. What we're really looking for are new approaches and some really innovative, high-quality new perspectives from people outside the industry.”

In the third and latest challenge participants were tasked with developing a model to predict how corn hybrids will perform in new locations with varying environmental conditions. Corn is a versatile crop and one of the world's most important. Each year, seed companies test new hybrids in diverse locations and measure their performance. But, there is a limit to the number of locations that breeders can test in, which creates uncertainty when it comes to choosing the best performing hybrids for growers to plant.

“Finding a better way to predict new hybrid performance in untested locations would be hugely advantageous because breeders would be able to make better decisions on product advancements and product placement,” added Doonan. “Within this space, it’s really about developing models to make better decisions, helping to unlock a plant’s full yield potential.”

Unleashing the Data

This open innovation contest is unique because participants received real-world datasets to develop their models. They were given access to eight years’ worth of Syngenta’s hybrid test data in over 2,000 locations to help them make better breeding decisions. Submissions came in from all over the world with hundreds of people taking part.

“There has always been a lot of excitement in this space. This year, when we were putting together the judging panel, the judging chair had trouble finding people to serve because they were already working on the challenge themselves or already had a team from their university working on it,” said Doonan.

The finalists of the latest Syngenta Crop Challenge will be announced in March, 2020 and the overall winner will be declared at the 2020 INFORMS Business Analytics Conference. All the entries are currently being evaluated.

"The quality of the submissions is very good,” Doonan stated. “Each year the quality of the submissions improve.”

Through the crop challenge and its forward-thinking data analytics approach to plant breeding, Syngenta is helping corn breeders find better ways to predict the performance of hybrids, which in turn will lead to higher crop yields.


[1] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: The World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, 2017.

[2] Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota: Is There Enough Food for the Future?

[3] People and the Planet: Feeding a World of 9 Billion, 2008

[4] Syngenta: Syngenta Growth Plan, 2013