The world’s population is growing at such a rate that to feed the expected 10 billion people of 2050 we will need 50% more food, fuel and biofuel, and 70% more meat in developing nations. But, said Bayer Crop Science President Liam Condon, today’s food system is not producing enough to meet the existing need, let alone any growth. “Just to keep what we have today, we’d have to increase productivity by 17%,” he said. Condon spoke at the September Bayer-sponsored Future of Farming Dialog in Monheim, Germany.

With the rapid pace of innovation and technological advancements, increasing productivity is not — or should not — be a significant challenge. Rather, the challenge lies in applying the innovation and technology while still meeting societal expectations.

According to a 2017 consumer survey commissioned by Bayer:

  • 93% of consumers believe innovation helps to grow more food.
  • 87% think innovation helps to fight global hunger.
  • 82% believe innovation helps to preserve the environment.

but

  • 62% of consumers think GMOs should be banned.
  • 73% think pesticides should be banned.
  • 67% are uncomfortable using digital tools to apply crop protection.

Thus, food has become a very polarizing topic. “We live in a post-truth era: populism and political polarization endanger modern science,” Condon said. Condon cited 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Winner Jean-Pierre Sauvage as saying, “Today, facts seem to be questioned by many people who prefer to believe rumors rather than well-established scientific facts.”

“We are in a golden age of science and technology,” said Bayer Crop Science Head of Research and Development Adrian Percy. “So much is going on that it is mind-boggling.” But, society’s acceptance of technology is just as important as the ability to apply technology. As such, companies that are working to integrate technology into food production not only need to understand what society needs, such as weed- and disease-resistant crops, they need to understand societal expectations.

With only 2.0% of the western world in farming, there is a gap between production and consumers, he said. Thus, the challenge is that, if we don’t have societal — or government — acceptance, all is for naught. “To bring more innovation to farmers, we need to strengthen the bond between those who consume and those who produce,” Percy said. “A sustainable future for agriculture depends on greater understanding of innovation in agriculture.”

Part of the issue comes from the fact that there is a disconnect between people and the source of our food. “The connection that food comes from the land is not universally known today,” Condon said.

HOW DO WE ADDRESS THE CHALLENGE? “We need to build trust through transparency,” Percy said. For example, some of the steps Bayer is taking to do this is setting up a website on which it will post the safety data of all its products; creating tutorials on the interpretation of its data so consumers can understand it; providing ag education at its “Baylabs” to get children and youths interested in the natural sciences and technology; and promoting transparency and dialog. In this way, he said, “Bayer is working to bridge the farmer-consumer disconnect to pave the way for acceptance of scientific breakthroughs to solve the greatest challenge of our time.”

“It’s not news that consumers want more information about their food’s origin than ever before,” said Nutrition Connections President and Founder Karen Buch, who spoke on a panel at the Dialog, “But, ultimately, they want the freshest, safest, quality food that can be sustainably produced.”

It also is important to understand that, she added, “The most accurate voice is not always the loudest voice.” For example, buying local has become a big trend, with many doing so to support small farmers rather than corporate producers. But, Buch said, 97% of the farms that supply retail stores are small family farmers. “Consumers don’t know that story,” she said. But, we need to tell that story; to connect the consumer to the farmer.

We also have a responsibility to acknowledge and appreciate others’ perspectives, said Bayer Head of Environmental Science Business Operations Jacqueline Applegate. There is no doubt that there is a societal perspective that influences the industry, but we cannot simply dispel it with science and fact. “When you just talk facts and science, people shut off. So, talk to people, instead, in a positive, emotional way.” For example, say: “There may be a perspective you’ve heard on (GMOs, natural foods, herbicides, etc.), but here is another perspective.”

“You need to be factual, but be clear about there being two positions,” she said. “Don’t just look through your goggles, your perspective. You have to acknowledge their perspective.” Even if that perspective comes from a lack of knowledge, stating it as wrong or uninformed will only increase their resistance to hear another perspective — even that which is backed by science.