As Bayer waits for the final go-ahead from regulators to merge with Monsanto, the company is coming to terms with what its role could be as the largest agriculture business in the world.
“The reality is Bayer is going to come together with Monsanto and this is going to be the biggest company in the agricultural space. With that, it’s going to have an awful lot of responsibility,” said Liam Condon, CEO of Bayer CropScience at a roundtable Bayer recently convened in Washington, DC. The discussion was designed to bring together all manner of non-industry stakeholders including environmental groups, nonprofit organizations, academics and a local corn, soy and wheat farmer.
Condon said the conversation was about gauging “expectations” for the new company, signaling that Bayer is aware of the controversy it is taking on with this deal.
In case there were any illusions that public perception of Monsanto had warmed, the St. Louis company made USA Today’s list of the “America’s Top 20 most-hated companies” this past February – which was compiled using data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, employee testimonials on Glassdoor, and USA Today internal data.
Though the table was stocked with probable opponents of Bayer and Monsanto such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the conversation focused around what Bayer can do to build trust with the various stakeholders and consumers more broadly.
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The first point of frequent distrust to come up was in the area of research.
“Speaking on behalf of academia, people often feel that when their research results come in and they’re not in line with the company stance, they feel pressure subtly or more overtly to suppress the results of their research and I think that undermines trust between academia and business,” said Jessica Elisa, a researcher from Perdue University who has written a book about communication in agriculture.
This issue is not simply hypothetical when it comes to Monsanto. Documents made public by The New York Times in August 2017, in conjunction with a lawsuit against Monsanto, showed various attempts to influence research and broader public opinion through questionable means, including authoring an editorial for a Forbes contributor to publish, attempting to “ghost write” research it funded, and having a contractual relationship with editor of an academic journal.
Monsanto denied and qualified each of these claims calling the disclosures “cherry picked” and stated that it would be seeking penalties since the release violated an existing confidentiality agreement.
“There has been a history of larger companies telling us what they want us to hear and not telling us the things they don’t want us to hear,” said Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We’re certainly not starting from a clean slate,” added Jon Buchanan, vice president of sustainable production at The Center for Environmental Leadership in Business at Conservation International, who recommended bringing Bayer’s strategy decisions down to the ground and involving communities and farmers.
Further recommendations from the group encouraged Bayer to admit research failures along with successes since consumers and academics alike have a hard time believing that every trial has a positive outcome.
“If you’re only publishing results that are positive and not publishing what didn’t work, of course there is going to be a lack of trust,” summarized Condon after hearing from the table. He explained that Bayer has made a commitment to making all of its studies around product safety available online, but conceded that simply making them public is not enough.
“It’s not enough to make it available online. It needs to be presented in a way that people can understand the data,” said Condon.
Apart from qualms with Monsanto’s business and research tactics, the company has been largely shouldered with the blame for the spread of genetically modified organisms GMOs, which remain unpopular in US public opinion polls — a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 57% of adults think GMOs are unsafe to consume.
Condon admitted that the industry players at large had blundered in focusing on the benefits that GMOs offer to farmers.
“We have focused on technical innovation that benefits farmers. A lot of our communication has been focused on the science. We love the science and we like to talk in a scientific manner and we haven’t been good enough in communicating what benefits there are for consumers. There has never been more abundant, safer, more nutritious food than today, but there is the perception out there that it is not safe,” said Condon.
With gene-edited seeds and products slowly making their way to market, Condon said that the industry cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.
“If this gets demonized again, as a technology — if it is regulated the same way as GMOs — only the big companies will be able to afford to do it and it’s actually the smaller companies who can get the most benefit from it,” said Condon.
The discussion was overwhelmingly productive, but farmer Trey Hill offered some context as to why such debates can get so contentious.
Hill, owner and operation of Harborview Farms, a 10,000-acre farm on the Chesapeake Bay in rural Maryland, described the default position of both farmers and environmentalists as “defensive.”
“You tell a farmer they’re doing something wrong, you just insulted their family,” said Hill. He warned against speaking in broad strokes that are 100% anti-chemical or anti-GMO that seem to suggest “trying to change the entire food system instead of improving the one that we’ve got that’s feeding people around the world so effectively.” He also added that all groups need to talk to farmers with economics in mind. With commodity prices low, margins for farmers don’t allow for risk-taking or major changes.
Hill added that achieving “true transparency” in the food system would require input from all parties.