Agriculture and Society: We Need To Talk
As a panelist on the topic of agricultural innovation, I discussed the challenges testing agriculture like never before: a growing population, evolving pest pressures, shifting consumer preferences and a changing climate. Fortunately, there are potential game-changing advances in digital farming, plant breeding, soil health, robotics, and satellite imagery that will help us overcome these challenges.
But innovation doesn’t do us any good if society isn’t buying what we’re selling. There are many reasons for this, but I think it comes down to two factors: a lack of trust in institutions and a disconnection between farmers and consumers. Let’s start with trust. The public’s confidence in business, government and media is at an all-time low and is moving in the wrong direction. A recent survey found that 53 percent of respondents believe these institutions have failed them and offer little hope for their future.
Agriculture is not immune from the public’s feelings of mistrust. Bayer’s survey of 10,000 consumers across 10 countries found that half of them have concerns about the very technologies responsible for most of the food we eat today. Here in the United States, 90 percent of Americans believe innovation will help us grow more food and fight global hunger, but most say they try to avoid buying genetically modified foods. And 93 percent think farmers should explore alternatives to chemical pesticides, even though these technologies form the backbone of today’s pest management practices.
To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the movie Apollo 13, “Des Moines, we have a problem.”
For us in agriculture, the natural reaction to the public’s rejection of these technologies is one of shock and disbelief. After all, the food produced from U.S. farms today feeds far more people (at a much lower cost) than it did 50 years ago. Even though it may be difficult for us to understand the public’s negativity toward modern agriculture, it is imperative that we do so.
And that leads me to the second societal factor: the growing disconnect between farmers and consumers. A century ago, nearly half of all Americans worked on a farm – today, less than 2 percent do. Efficiencies in farming have enabled people to work in many other industries, but society’s detachment from the farm has come at a cost: the gulf between the public and agriculture has never been wider. And while consumers may have little understanding of what it takes to bring food to their table, the simple truth is that farming cannot progress if we fail to address their concerns.
We must do more to reassure society about the safety of agricultural innovation. The public is frequently bombarded with negative and misleading information about our food supply system. Even though we know advances in farming have increased safety and sustainability, it’s not enough to say “trust me.” Many people don’t trust the integrity of privately-funded research, perhaps fearing that the industry may be hiding something from them. To address this misperception, Bayer has taken steps to allow public access to safety-relevant crop protection study information. We hope this helps connect people with our scientific community in a way that builds trust and shows our desire to be more transparent.
Finally, we need to build a closer bond between those who grow our food and those who consume it. While consumers strongly support innovation, they also care deeply about water quality, soil health, and minimizing the use of pesticides in our environment. Agriculture can strengthen this bond by reinforcing its commitment to best management practices, which fundamentally shares the same goals. Bayer’s investment in research makes social responsibility and environmental sustainability a priority, not an afterthought. We believe what’s good for the public is also good for agriculture, because ultimately it’s the consumer – not the industry – that drives the kinds of foods we eat and the way we produce them.
My message to the public is pretty simple: Let’s talk. I’m betting that we’ll find we share the same values when it comes to the safety of our families, our food and our environment. By working together, the best days of agriculture will certainly lie ahead of us.