German pharma giant Bayer has a job to do if it wants to win public trust. Shortly after it completed the purchase of Monsanto, the owner of weed killer Round Up, an American jury ruled that the weed killer had contributed to a man’s cancer.
That’s sparked a vocal lobbying campaign by Bayer, which maintains the product is safe and is appealing the ruling.
“For over 40 years, the overwhelming conclusion of experts worldwide has been that glyphosate can be used safely according to label instructions. There have been more than 800 scientific studies and reviews that prove glyphosate is safe for use,” the company says on its website.
But simply saying something is safe does not mean that people believe you. Liam Condon, an Irishman who is president of Bayer’s crop science division and a member of the company’s board, says the company needs to communicate more about its technology’s benefits.
The crop science division makes products that are designed to make farmers more productive. But involving science in the production of food can provoke tensions with those who would prefer if nature was left alone.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job at explaining that whatever the innovation technology is, it’s always built on what’s happening in nature anyway. It’s basically copied and applied in a much more resource efficient way,” Mr Condon says.
“If you take the old days of breeding, you crossed two plants and grew them in a field and looked to see which ones were the most productive. Then you single those out and you cross again and you do this over generations – but you’re planting the stuff all the time, you’re using earth, you’re using water, you’re using nutrients. Today, we can do all of this in a lab…we know from a genomic analysis point of view what the most productive genes are going to be, and we can avoid all of that field testing. We can save natural resources.”
As well as the sustainability benefits, and the benefits for farmers, Mr Condon wants to start talking more about the consumer benefits that go with crop science. That could include areas like boosting nutrition or reducing allergenics.
The company has taken the decision to open up the books of its research studies as well. Traditionally, companies have kept most details out of the public domain to avoid tipping off their rivals, Mr Condon says. Instead they just sent the details to the regulators – the people they needed to convince in order to get a product on the market.
“Because it’s not publicly available, people think you’re hiding something so we took a very conscious decision last year to actually make all of our study data available on a public website, and not only make it available but to actually tell people how to interpret it.
“That’s a constant process now of bringing more and more online. This will continue going forward…the only thing that’s not in there is the hardcore business confidential information, for example how do you physically produce the stuff.”
Mr Condon’s devision has a big R&D budget of €2bn-€2.5bn a year. But he says some projects are so ambitious that they’re placed outside the normal framework and done as joint ventures.
One example he cites is called Joyn Bio – an attempt to totally disrupt the fertiliser industry. Bayer’s partner in this project is called Gingko Bioworks.
The idea is to identify the microbes (tiny organisms like bacteria or yeast) that are beneficial for plants – and then manufacture them at scale in labs. The manufactured microbes could then be used to boost soil fertility – without the need for industrial fertilisers which have bad side-effects for the environment.
“If that works at the scale that we believe it will be possible, that basically will completely disrupt the fertiliser industry,” Mr Condon says.
“We don’t know if it will work but the technology and the initial kind of steps we’ve taken says it’s probably got a reasonable chance.”
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