Bayer Leaders Share Strategies For Building Consumer Trust In Food

May 4, 2018 03:40 PM
Grain elevator

In some consumers’ minds, big agriculture and food companies can’t be trusted. That’s why organizations such as Crop Science, A Division of Bayer are working to build transparency into their business model.

At the 2018 Trust In Food™ Symposium, high-level speakers included Bayer leaders Adrian Percy, global head of research and development, and Beth Roden, global head of communications.

Both agreed to answer follow-up questions from Symposium attendees.

Regulation can be challenging for agribusiness. How do we create a more ag friendly reg enviro while addressing enviro and social impacts associated with ag? 

Adrian Percy: Our regulators are certainly not immune from public perception – in fact, they must be responsive to consumers as part of their mission. And if consumers are confused or misled about modern agriculture, then it’s incumbent upon all of us – industry and regulators – to use sound scientific risk assessment to reassure them.   We know from experience that doing this is not easy, however. 

To maintain a steady stream of innovation needed for food security we must create a more informed and engaged public. This includes working with multiple parties through every step of our new product development process.For example, participants at the Workshop on Innovation and Regulation in Agriculture, a 2016 multi-stakeholder event identified the need for more engagement and collaboration between public and private entities regarding research needed to support technological innovation in agriculture. While this group’s work is ongoing, I think bringing the EPA, USDA, universities and other agencies together is how our industry can help bridge the gap between public perception and agricultural reality.

Adrian, how do we successfully redefine the real truth that technology like GMOs, gene editing, and modern ag practices are a path to increased sustainability?

Adrian Percy: With so few people involved in agriculture today, it’s easy to see how the gap has grown between the industry’s and the public’s understanding of modern farming.  Sustainability doesn’t mean a return to nature, as some would subscribe. That’s because farming is a deliberate modification of the environment to make food production more dependable and efficient. When we talk about sustainable agriculture, we’re talking about feeding the world, while preserving our natural resources for future generations. 

We know the only way to accomplish this sustainability goal is through innovation. So, it’s critical that we help the public understand what sustainability truly means and that we explain how modern agriculture is the best way to make it happen. It does our society no good to engage in a prolonged dispute between farmers and consumers.

But innovative technologies are not enough, especially if the public doesn’t trust them. Our research tells us that consumers have real concerns about safety and environmental impact of the very technologies that are responsible for the greatest farm productivity in human history. One reason is because our industry hasn’t done a good enough job at listening to their concerns in the hopes that the innovation will speak for itself. That’s why Bayer is working to make our practices more transparent to the public and why we’re trying to engage with people face-to-face, so that we can have an honest conversation about food.  We won’t restore any lost trust in just a day.  We’ve got to be committed to this open dialogue for the long haul.

What is in the R&D pipeline as retailers push back on glyphosate?

Adrian Percy: Glyphosate will remain a critical product for modern agriculture for the foreseeable future, but only if it is used in an integrated weed management program.  The difficulty for our industry is that finding effective new herbicides to complement these programs isn’t easy. In fact, no new herbicide mode of action has been discovered in the past 30 years!  To address this critical issue, Bayer established a stand-alone global Weed Resistance Competence Center to develop new technologies and proactive programs to promote sustainable weed management. And we are working with growers, retailers, universities and crop management professionals to make sure we follow an integrated approach that includes chemical, mechanical and cultural practices. In particular, we have a U.S. program called Respect the Rotation that elevates the importance and grower adoption of herbicide diversity through the rotation of crops and traits and the use of multiple herbicide modes of action (MOAs.)

False claims, misinformation, and even good fears have driven huge margins and share shifts. How do we hold food marketers more accountable for truth? 

Beth Roden: There are times when food marketers have taken advantage of opportunities to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and, unfortunately, this can lead to more confusion.  Words like “natural,” “pure,” “organic,” “GMO-free” and “certified” mean different things to consumers and can make buying decisions difficult.  As an industry, we recognize the importance of providing choice for consumers and helping them to feel good about what they purchase to feed their families.  Bayer has taken additional steps to collaborate with food chain partners as well as engage directly with consumers to have a dialogue about agricultural innovation and food production to increase confidence. 

When companies talk about transparency, how willing are they to admit past mistakes or missteps that have had the effect of eroding trust? 

Beth Roden: Based on Bayer’s own consumer research, we recognize that the biggest consumer concern involves the safety of agricultural technologies. Although we know how many rigorous safety tests are required for product registration, the public is deeply suspicious of studies conducted by companies. Since these studies are classified as confidential business information, too many consumers believe we must be hiding something from them. That’s why our Transparency initiative is so important. We’re making our product safety information available online to anyone who wants to see it.

Transparency involves more than access to data. It’s also about a willingness to engage face-to-face to discuss what we know – and what we don’t know – about agriculture. I’m happy to say that many of our employees are actively meeting with consumers to listen to their concerns and talk about why we feel modern ag is the answer, not the problem. Whether it’s participating in events like the Trust in Food Forum, hosting Bayer’s annual AgVocacy Forum, or conducting tours at the U.S. Bee Care Center, we want to encourage this open communication.  We can’t just talk about the importance of AgVocacy and telling the story of modern agriculture; we have to get out there and DO IT!

Adrian, what is share of research and development between chemical and biological research? 

Adrian Percy: We recognize the importance of providing growers with a variety of technological innovations no matter how they choose to farm.  No two farms are the same, from soil composition to pest pressures to diseases, and our focus is to offer growers different solutions to address the challenges they face.  To meet these needs, we have launched new joint ventures and collaborations in both biologics and traditional chemistry.  A few in the biological space include:

Research activities with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) in Florida which will focus on a broad set of possible tools against citrus greening, mainly to identify biological disease control solutions or molecules that modulate the plants’ innate immune defense system.
Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0, also for the North America corn market, includes a complementary bacterium which is added on top of Poncho/VOTiVO, a seed treatment.  This new product helps with nutrient availability in the soil and offers growers a yield boost.

Lastly, we announced a joint venture with Ginkgo Bioworks. This collaboration has the potential to revolutionize soil health, enabling farmers to use inputs like nitrogen more effectively and sustainably.

Consumers don't seem to want "science" anywhere near their food. How do we get them to embrace science? 

Beth Roden: We know from global surveys that consumer trust in institutions – governments, businesses, media, and NGOs – is at an all-time low. We live in a time of “fake news,” deep polarization, and competing interest groups that has fractured the foundation of trust that is needed for people to have confidence in their institutions.

The public trust wasn’t lost in a day and it won’t be restored in one, either. But Bayer is committed to a long-term approach working across many levels to create a dialogue with consumers about their food.  We are also working to cultivate the next generation of agricultural enthusiasts who will become our world’s future leaders, understand agriculture and be a voice for it.  Bayer has many programs, from 4-H to National FFA to support plant science, to MSMS to promote general scientific curiosity among elementary students, to our Youth Ag-Summit, which brings young adults together from across the world to focus on ag problems and solutions. 

There’s much more that I could say, but the bottom line is that we all have many encounters each day with people of all ages who are not involved in agriculture.  This gives each of us the opportunity to be an “AgVocate.” We can’t afford to waste it!

Why have EU governments approved laws banning cultivation of crops with GMOs? Doesn't this drive misinformation and sustain mistrust globally?

Adrian Percy: The EU operates under the precautionary principle, which suggests regulatory action should be taken if there is a potential threat to human health or the environment and even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established. The fallacy of this argument is that rarely, if ever, is there complete certainty about health or environmental effects.  The U.S. regulatory system is risk based and looks at both potential risk and exposure.  Any substance, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, can be hazardous at certain concentrations and exposures.  However, the hazard or toxicity of a substance does not equate to risk, which only can be measured when hazard is combined with exposure.  For example, a hand can quickly pass through an open flame without harm, but if it is moved more slowly a painful burn will occur – because exposure to the heat is much greater.  

Our toughest challenge may be how we work with stakeholders, regulators and consumers as we develop new technologies. We must do a better job of communicating with them every step of the way – from concept to commercialization. That involves more than assurances of safety – we must be vocal in why these technologies are so needed and the potential risk associated with them.  If we are properly aligned with growers, retailers, researchers, regulators, policymakers, NGOs and the public, I believe we can find ways to work together to solve the real problems we face in feeding our world.

That’s why I think “AgVocacy” is so important. We need to pull together to overcome the misleading accusations against modern agriculture and we need to acknowledge that the concerns of consumers cannot be wished away.  Each of us has a part to play.

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