When you have questions about the safety behind a crop protection product, where can you get information? In this case, directly from the source - Bayer has granted access to scientific data and studies required in the evaluation of crop protection product.
Trust me: a commonly heard expression, but are words enough to make people believe? Not so, says Philosophy professor Mark Alfano. “Trust may often be a good thing, but it needs to be earned,” he says. An associate professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, and Australia’s Catholic University, Alfano says skepticism is a normal reaction when people lack clarity. “When corporations, institutions, and governments do not make serious efforts to be trustworthy, it is reasonable for citizens to react with distrust and take action to prevent the implementation of risky new technologies.” For example, the broad public is concerned about the safety of a crop protection product and, as a result, the safety of the food they eat. Considering that our world will need to feed another two billion people by 2050, this is a worrying development.
How to build trust?
By enabling access to safety-relevant crop protection studies, Bayer wants to explain what lies behind the registration of a crop protection product and how the safety of such a product is tested. “It is impossible to sustain a business without trust,” says Bob Reiter, Head of Research and Development, Crop Science. “Transparency is a way of proving trust,” says Alfano. “Opening up about communication structures is one way to be transparent. But more important is providing clear access to analytics and data. Show the public how study results were achieved by showing them the calculations. This gives the public the opportunity to check for themselves. That’s much better than showing lab results and saying: ‘Just trust us’.”
The Bayer Transparency Initiative serves this purpose and follows a two-phased approach. “The first step was to publish summarized study results and evaluations of a large number of active substances, accompanied by explanatory background information and willingness to enter into a dialogue with the interested public,” says Charlotte Morr, Project Lead of the initiative. “The next phase started in March 2018, when we enabled access to full safety study reports for the first active substance Iprovalicarb, a fungicide against the fungal disease Plasmopara viticola, which can be found in viticulture.”
“Safety standards and requirements have never been as high as they are today,” says Bob Reiter. “We want to demonstrate our safety efforts to the public to decrease their fear and let them know that our food is safe. After all, we all eat the same food, share the same space and want what’s best for our children,” Reiter explains. In fact, crop protection products are among the most thoroughly researched and most strictly regulated chemicals in the world. Approximately 1,200 studies are required for the marketing authorization of a chemical used in a crop protection product. “On top of that, only one out of every 100,000 product candidates we find in the lab will ever be commercialized – and most of the chemicals are already discarded in an early stage of development,” he adds.
Like a prism – revealing the full spectrum
Because of the high scientific standards and requirements for crop protection products, it’s easy to understand that studies and reports can be difficult to read, particularly for people not familiar with the matter. To make this information clearer for general audiences, the Transparency Initiative’s web portal provides guidance on how to read the information in the reports. “We want everyone – from a layman to a member of the scientific community – to be able to access the information in a way that is fast and easy to understand,” says Charlotte Morr. “This initiative is like a prism: A prism is an object, often made of glass that breaks down clear light to reveal the basic color spectrum within it. This project breaks down complex regulatory packages into clear pieces of information.”
Bayer is the first company in the crop protection industry to make its studies publicly accessible in this manner. By doing so, the hope is that the public will step closer to science and to dialogue with companies.
A step towards transparency
Niklas Pieper is a lawyer at Bayer. He supports the Crop Science Division with legal advice in the approval process and supported the Transparency Initiative.
Why does the public doubt the safety of crop protection products?
The public is understandably afraid of the unknown. And the details of the approval process are currently not accessible to a wide audience. We want to change that. Countless studies and controls prove the safety of our products. People should understand why crop protection is so important: They increase efficiency in the field and thus help to ensure the nutrition of the world's population.
What legal steps does a new crop protection product undergo before approval?
The approval of crop protection products is a process that takes many years. During development, many studies are carried out to examine the risks to humans, animals, plants and the environment.
Why do you think the Transparency Initiative is so important?
With the Transparency Initiative, we want to build the public’s trust in science and tackle the idea of ‘secret’ operations in closed laboratories. The occasion was the Arhus Convention, which gives the public the right to certain authority information that concerns the environment and where the European Court of Justice in November 2016 established some new principles. After these court rulings, we wondered if it hurts our companies to enable access to our information. Although there are some risks, such as in the area of patents or in misuse by third parties to illegally exhaust our knowhow, we have opted for disclosure. It is important for us to engage in dialogue with the public and to understand the worries and fears of the people. With more transparency, we can do it.