Open, constructive, fact-based – that’s the way to go

 

In just a few days, it will be time for another Green Week. Thousands of people will once again be finding out more about agriculture, and once again thousands will be using pithy slogans to demonstrate against “plant poisons,” “bee killers” and “agribusiness”. However, confrontation isn’t the way to handle this. What we need is a constructive debate free of ideology to discuss the best kind of agriculture for the future.

Christian Maertin

Christian Maertin

Head of Corporate Communications at Bayer AG

“Yes, it’s true, our agriculture must become more sustainable,” Liam Condon likes to say when asked about the greatest challenges in his industry. “An excessive focus on yields cannot be continued going forward,” the Member of Bayer’s Board of Management responsible for agriculture explains. He believes the greatest challenge lies in balancing two key goals – more efficiency but also more sustainability. The authors of the renowned Global Agriculture Report, the latest edition of which has just been published, confirm this is the correct approach.

An excessive focus on yields cannot be continued going forward

Of course, there are many factors standing in the way of achieving these goals – technological, economic, ecological and climatic ones. However, one of the most important is how we approach the debate about agriculture. It has reached the point where it’s hardly possible to engage in constructive, fact-based discussions any more with some of the parties involved. For example, Saturday will again see thousands of people marching in Berlin under the banner “We’ve had enough.” Again, the argumentation and pithy slogans will lead to more polarization, confrontation and division.

“People, it’s time to take to the streets again!” comes the call from the Schrot & Korn organic lifestyle magazine to its readership, urging them not to give in to the “feeling of powerlessness” and stay “quietly in their rooms,” but instead go out and demonstrate “loudly, proudly and in force.” Schrot & Korn is available free at the checkout of many organic food stores, and has a circulation of around 900,000. The idea is to now show what nearly a million readers can do.

To get things stirred up in good time, the magazine used the December edition to take aim at the biggest bogeyman for many in the organic movement – the weed control product glyphosate, which is manufactured by Bayer, among others. In her editorial, the responsible editor Stephanie Silber argued that glyphosate was suspected to be carcinogenic on the one hand while Bayer was selling cancer treatments on the other. “It makes my skin crawl,” says the editor.

Quite frankly, mine, too. I am appalled that someone could imply – without any factual evidence or insight into in-house processes – that Bayer deliberately risks causing cancer in order to make profits.

Scientific analyses form the basis for everything

And the editor openly admits to not being at all interested in hearing the scientific side. “I’ve nearly had enough of all these studies! I know that I don’t want this system” – by which she means large corporations in the seed market – “for our society.”

I, on the other hand, do not want a system where gut feelings overrule logical thinking and where people only believe information that supports their own world view. Safety studies, independent experts and scientific analyses are not of “no matter,” they form the basis for everything.

Let’s get one thing straight – so long as it is used properly, regulatory authorities around the world have considered glyphosate to be safe and non-carcinogenic for over 40 years. Only the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015 – putting it in the same category as red meat and hot drinks, for example.

“Schrot & Korn” has no problems at all with these product groups, however. When it comes to red meat, the editorial team has even tackled the cancer risk head-on. An older article literally said: “Red alert? According to what we know so far, it is rather unlikely that beef and lamb of all things are carcinogenic. It isn’t the color that matters, but the preparation.” To put it another way, such classifications are only of interest to “Schrot & Korn” when they fit with the world view of the editors.

Talking with people, not about them

The magazine applies similar principles when choosing whom it will speak to. As with many of our critics, we reached out to the editorial team to discuss the matter, in line with Bayer’s commitment to talking with people, not about them. Unfortunately, “Schrot & Korn” was not willing to speak to us. It has even insisted that we cannot quote from the message declining the interview without consulting the magazine first.

It’s a pity. We would have liked to exchange views with the responsible editor about the significance of scientific studies. We would also have liked to discuss with her how farmers protect their crops using glyphosate and whether it is possible to feed a growing global population using organic agriculture alone. Ms. Silber could only refer us to contacts to answer these questions. This restraint is in sharp contrast to her editorials.

“Communicating with people who think differently is hard work. But refusing to do so makes compromise impossible,” says German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Unfortunately, we regularly encounter this stonewalling in Bayer’s communications, too. Nonetheless, we will continue to take the opposite approach in 2019. “Speak to people who don’t share your opinions. If you don’t speak, and absolutely refuse to listen, you will never get any closer to finding solutions,” Steinmeier says. And he’s right.