The technical research platform of AgroScience, which Symrise established in 2017, looks into new farming practices as well as harvesting and processing methods for plant-based raw materials. The team uses various different approaches in its work and combines them with know-how from other areas in collaborative efforts to develop the farming of the future, which will be of great benefit to the company. 


Esther-Corinna Schwarze deftly moves the lever to the right, opens the door of the environmental chamber and takes a step to the side. Warm air escapes. The small, brightly lit room houses containers from which supported green plants rise two meters high. “This is all vanilla, but different species or genotypes,” says Symrise’s master technologist for AgroScience, looking at the plants with their dark green leaves. She then closes the door to stop the temperature from dropping. In the adjacent environmental chamber is paracress. The view is similar, but on a smaller scale: knee-high plants with distinctive yellow, egg-shaped flowers, under LED lighting. 

The two environmental chambers, a large greenhouse and another container are situated at the edge of the Symrise site in Holzminden, directly adjacent to Esther-Corinna Schwarze’s office. She heads up a relatively new research and development department within the Food & Beverage division: AgroScience, set up in 2017. Among other things, Esther and her three colleagues look into new plants and farming practices and putting the knowledge into practice.

Her work shows up in multiple different areas. Symrise has integrated its value chain backward in many places, for example with the vanilla in Madagascar or the onion in the area around Holzminden. “We work closely with the farmers who grow very specific varieties for us in clearly defined qualities at a certain price,” says Esther-Corinna Schwarze. For this to work, Symrise must understand the plants and their cultivation. This applies not only to existing collaborations; in the future too we want to cultivate new plants in which we have a particular interest. So it’s very helpful to have some understanding of the plants and their requirements,” says Esther-Corinna Schwarze. “Then we can pass on our knowledge to the farmers and obtain better results.”

One example of this is paracress, which grows mostly in Brazil where it goes by the name of jambú. “It is used to flavor food, but mostly for medicinal purposes, such as treating toothache,” says Esther-Corinna Schwarze. Paracress has a mild anesthetic effect and makes the mouth tingle. “It could be used, for example, in oral hygiene or to mask unwanted effects in certain foods.” Another objective could also be to cultivate paracress indoors as opposed to in fields in the tropics where it is currently grown. “This is also conceivable in the countries of origin. Then we could achieve a much better quality, cultivate the plants all year round and maybe even harvest multiple times a year,” says Esther-Corinna Schwarze. To this end, she tests different potting soils and substrates, fertilizers and light settings, for example. She analyzes root growth, to accelerate it, and also different harvesting and processing methods. “We test which ingredients we get from fresh or dried components and how they correlate to flowers, leaves and stems.

Indoor farming is of particular importance for Symrise. “It was given a boost in the 2010s as advances in LED technology made the requisite lighting affordable,” says Dr. Jakob Ley. “We have long been working on this and are currently concentrating on around 10 different varieties of plant that previously were hardly ever cultivated or only grow in the tropics,” explains the Director Research Biobased Ingredients. In addition to AgroScience, he is also responsible for four other research areas. “This means that we can farm and analyze more unusual varieties here in Holzminden.”

“We work closely with the farmers.”   

Esther-Corinna Schwarze,
Master Technologist for AgroScience

One challenge was to obtain the plant material in the first place. “The Nagoya Protocol seeks to safeguard biodiversity, particularly in emerging and developing countries, and prevents the exploitation of natural resources,” explains Ley. “We therefore only have plant offspring obtained from the countries of origin as per the Nagoya Protocol or that were available and freely traded in Europe prior to its introduction in 2014, for example in nurseries, but also research facilities or botanical gardens.” For further research, Symrise also makes use of seedlings. 

Ley is keen to point out that the countries of origin too will benefit from the work at a later date. For example, the team is working on improving their understanding of when the vanilla buds blossom. “The small farmers in Madagascar must check all the plants every morning during the growing season. The orchids only bloom for one day and the farmer must pollinate them by hand,” says Ley of the time-consuming work. “If we understand how this process works in the plant, how we can predict it and maybe even shorten it, that would be a great help.” Symrise is also experimenting with light and moisture control. The researchers analyze leaves, roots and stems to try to gain a better understanding of the phytohormones that, as signaling molecules, regulate the development of the plants. The team is also investigating infections in the vanilla plant caused by fusarium. The sac fungi are responsible for the loss of 30 % of plants in the plantation. “We experiment with different irrigation methods or substrates that could prevent the fungus from growing,” says Ley. The findings will then also be passed on to the farmers in Madagascar. 

Symrise grows its own seedlings from the stems of vanilla plants in nutrient solutions.

“We have long been working on this and are currently concentrating on around 10 different varieties of plant that previously were hardly ever cultivated or only grow in the tropics.” 

Dr. Jakob Ley,
Director Research Biobased Ingredients

“We have a long tradition of processing natural substances.”  

Dr. Gerhard Krammer,
Head of Research & Technology in the Taste, Nutrition & Health segment

For Jakob Ley, AgroScience is here to stay, and his platform works closely with other research departments. There are collaboration projects in place with universities and other industrial partners, with know-how and analytical equipment being shared. For Dr. Gerhard Krammer too, AgroScience is inextricably linked to Symrise. “We have a long tradition of processing natural substances. We synthesized the first vanilla from conifer 150 years ago. Today, we buy natural substances from all over the world,” says the head of the Research & Technology division in the Taste, Nutrition & Health segment. And he believes it makes perfect sense to also conduct research in farming. “If we combine the growing methods of biotechnology with modern farming practices, we can produce better harvests and better quality. We also prevent waste and develop innovative products, thereby becoming increasingly sustainable.” Krammer sees indoor farming as key in this regard. “With defined growing environments and modern analytical technology, we can undertake more structured experiments to produce the best farming conditions.” These must also take into account how different plant species are cultivated, how the ingredients of these plants are optimized and how the growing season is extended.

But the goal is always the same: “Symrise currently uses around 1,500 to 2,000 botanical raw materials that must primarily be extracted and processed. So it is important to develop products with particular properties that have an unmistakable smell, taste and effect,” says Gerhard Krammer. One example for this is the onion. Symrise has worked with farmers in the region to optimize methods to such an extent that the extract is exported as far afield as Japan. “We have cultivated a very reasonably priced raw material in such a way and in such formulations that it is unmistakable.” Gerhard Krammer sees further work on raw materials in AgroScience as essential. “It gives us such a unique selling proposition that we can achieve sustained success.”

Successful experiment in Singapore

When space is at a premium, build upward. This works just as well with plants as it does with buildings. Lettuce, herbs and strawberries can be grown in multiple levels one on top of the other under artificial light and without soil, receiving nutrients in liquid form. This does indeed save space: One hectare of vertical farming is the equivalent of 10 hectares of conventional fields. On the one hand, this farming method could in future help to feed people regionally and sustainably in towns. On the other, the plants can be farmed in a controlled environment in such a way that they produce more valuable ingredients. 

To this end, the Symrise Scent & Care segment has embarked on an experiment together with Taste, Nutrition & Health in Singapore. A multidisciplinary team selected plants that are already part of Symrise’s raw materials portfolio or will be of interest in the future and brought together plant geneticists, agronomists, flavor and fragrance scientists as well as data analysts. Local company VertiVegies provided the vertical farming know-how. The experiments varied the light spectrum and intensity, for example, as well as the nutrition of the plants in order to observe the effect on their olfactory and organoleptic properties. “The partnership with VertiVegies has given us fascinating new insights into how we can develop flavor and fragrance raw materials in the future,” says Dr. Norbert Braun, Vice President Innovation & QC at Symrise Asia Pacific. “We have also gleaned a lot about how the farming of the future will be, and we can apply some of this within the framework of our sustainability strategy in collaborations with small farmers in Asia.”