Collaboration will be the key to success for farmers, agribusinesses and environmental NGOs in the future, says Trey Hill, a farmer from Rock Hall, Md. On his own operation where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat, local environmental leaders helped pay for NDVI technology that helps him precisely apply nitrogen to limit nutrient runoff into neighboring streams and the Chesapeake Bay.
“I am an advocate for the environment,” Hill told conservationists this month during a Bayer roundtable in Washington, D.C. The discussion was led by Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, and organized by CEO Liam Condon of Crop Science, A Division Of Bayer. Participants included a mix of experts from NGOs, universities and other sectors.
Learning Opportunity. Condon arranged the listening session for Bayer as it prepares to acquire Monsanto. The company is seeking to forge deeper ties with its farmer-customers as well as with leaders traditionally outside of the agriculture industry. Its objective is to develop a newly combined company that is transparent and socially responsible, Condon says.
“Reality is, Bayer is going to come together with Monsanto, and it’s going to be the biggest company in the agriculture space,” Condon told the group, noting the newly combined company will have 40,000 employees globally. “And with that is going to come an awful lot of responsibility, as well.”
How To Engage Farmers. For agribusinesses and environmental groups to have a smooth working relationship with farmers, Hill told the conservationists, it’s critical for those groups to consider how they approach the conversation. Farmers are willing to adapt their in-field practices, but only if their partners are willing to collaborate instead of merely issuing orders.
“If you tell him he’s doing something wrong, it’s an insult to his family,” Hill cautioned. He’s hopeful that investing in sustainable practices will eventually allow him to earn a premium on responsibly grown grains.
Other participants at the meeting told Condon that Bayer must focus on the well-being of smallholder farmers, especially in developing countries. Food producers in those areas face grave food insecurity daily and need access to financing, inputs and land.
In the U.S., agribusinesses must build relationships all along the supply chain, including with trusted advisers to farmers, to speak a common language and help farmers understand and implement best practices.
“Otherwise, it’s a game of telephone tag,” explained Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability at Environmental Defense Fund, to Condon. On the consumer side, companies should ensure labeling efforts don’t relegate sustainably grown food to a niche market. Rather, sustainable food should be accessible to everyone.
Consumer Education. Even in Germany, where Bayer is headquartered, consumers are removed from the reality of food production, Condon explained to Trust In Food™ in an interview after the meeting. Food has never been safer, cheaper or more nutritious. Yet scaremongering has eroded confidence.
“We haven’t invested much in telling the story to consumers,” Condon acknowledges. “There is a huge interest in eating and where food comes from.”
Bayer needs to get better at having those conversations, he says, and the company already has the basic skills it needs because of its health-care business. Efforts such as its international ForwardFarming program, of which Hill’s Maryland farm is a part, will showcase best practices not only for Bayer’s farmer-customers but also consumers and policymakers.
“It is possible to do conventional farming in a sustainable way,” Condon says. “It allows a farm to be profitable.”
Bayer’s focus going forward, Condon says, will be on building emotional connections to consumers and explaining the benefits of new technology to consumers. That will be especially important as gene editing takes off. The agriculture industry made a mistake when it focused solely on farmer benefits of GMOs, Condon says.
“It created a vacuum for people to suggest there was a safety issue,” he says. “Benefits have to be shared in a responsible manner. I think people have learned.”
Focus on creating solutions that are driven by outcomes, advised John Buchanan, vice president of sustainable production within Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.
“Shift the way you are talking about agriculture, and have the same conversation at multiple levels,” Buchanan told Condon during the meeting with conservationists. “Where should agriculture go? What are Bayer’s solutions for addressing those issues? How do you push that broader outcomes-based discussion?”