No one ever accused the American novelist Ernest Hemingway of adorning his work with too many words. But like so much of his writing, Hemingway’s quotation about trust is exquisite in its simplicity. Considering the divisive issues that exist in our society, there’s no doubt that many of them stem from a lack of trust, especially when it involves food and agriculture.
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
– Ernest Hemingway
I recently participated in Bayer’s AgVocacy Forum in Anaheim, California, which brings thought-leaders across many industries together to discuss how we can make food production more sustainable. For 13 years, the forum has been held in association with the Commodity Classic, a large annual trade show that celebrates the accomplishments of American agriculture. For those attending these events, the success of modern agriculture is obvious – the average U.S. farm today feeds nearly 6 times more people than it did in 1960. But relying on our current success won’t be enough to feed a world that is expected to add another 2 billion people by 2050. That will require 50 percent more food than is produced today. Continued innovation is the only way we can hope to meet this growing demand.
Unfortunately, there are many who feel that modern agriculture has become too large, too complex, and too devoted to technologies and practices that put people and the environment at risk. And they are not reassured when our industry glosses over their concerns, or suggests that they need to blindly trust us. The truth is they probably don’t.
An annual global survey finds that trust in most institutions is at an all-time low. An era of “fake news” and deep polarization has fractured the foundation of trust that is needed for people to have confidence in their government, companies, NGOs and media. From 2017 to 2018, the U.S. saw the steepest decline in aggregate trust of any surveyed market, Germany was unchanged, and China saw the largest increase – but over 70 percent of countries fall in “distruster territory.” Despite the different drivers affecting each country, there is no doubt that this prevailing sense of mistrust spills over to agriculture, as well.
It is impossible to sustain a business without trust. That’s why Bayer recently conducted our own survey, reaching out to 10,000 people across 10 countries to understand the specific concerns they have about modern agriculture. We found that an overwhelming number of consumers favor innovation that grows more food and fights global hunger, but many are worried about the tools farmers use to raise a crop. The message couldn’t be clearer: It’s not enough to produce food efficiently, people also want to know that their food is produced safely and sustainably.
But how do we bridge the gap that stems from a lack of trust between people and institutions? One way is through greater transparency. Our recently announced transparency initiative that will make our product safety testing data accessible to anyone is a strong signal of our intentions to consumers and our industry. By sharing what was once considered confidential, we want to show the scientific rigor that’s involved in evaluating the safety of our products. And what better way to demonstrate our confidence in the integrity of our research than to let people see the science for themselves?
Increased transparency involves much more than sharing information or even talking about it. It begins with listening to what people think about the food they eat and how it is produced. We know that consumers care deeply about human safety, biodiversity, water quality, soil health, and environmental sustainability. Well, so do we. And we can help restore public trust by discussing these concerns face-to face to show why modern agriculture is not an impediment, but instead is necessary to achieve these goals. These conversations can occur between individuals, within small groups or before large audiences, but it’s important that we convey our common humanity. After all, we eat the same food, share the same space and want what’s best for our children.
The public deserves to hear our thoughts directly – not just in a set of corporate talking points. I am proud of the way Bayer employees across the world have leapt at the opportunity to be “AgVocates” for agriculture. In industry forums, science education workshops, open laboratories, and dedicated facilities like our Bee Care Centers and our Innovation Center, we are reaching out to students, consumers, NGOs, stakeholders, and indeed anyone who is willing to start a real dialogue about our future food security. It won’t be easy, but if we put aside our defenses and open ourselves to new ideas, then I’m betting we will all have something to learn about each other.
Trust takes years to develop and only a moment to lose. But we know it will never happen if we don’t begin somewhere. I think Hemingway had it right. Let’s take a leap of faith and start talking.