The sustainability bandwagon is picking up speed and more supporters
Almost every day, another major food company or agribusiness sends me their plans to be eco-friendlier, carbon-neutral, sustainable or regenerative. Clearly, there's a strong movement to mesh business and environmental goals and perhaps, build public support along the way.
For example, earlier this year, General Mills announced its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. The Minnesota-based company said it would partner with key suppliers to drive adoption of these practices across key ingredients, including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets.
The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance — a collaboration between Danone North America; Mars Inc.; Nestlé USA and Unilever United States — released some climate principles this spring in order to "accelerate development of federal climate legislation." As part of an incentives-based strategy to reduce emissions and sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the alliance will work with the agriculture and forestry sectors.
Most recently, the biggest player in seeds, crop protection and data confirmed an ambitious plan to address climate change and a more sustainable farming future. Bayer's move ensures that, from whether it's on the input or output side of your business, farmers and ranchers will be asked to meet new expectations and metrics.
"Agriculture needs to feed a growing world without starving the planet," said Liam Condon, member of the Bayer board of management and president of the Crop Science Division during a global event in Monheim, Germany. "We have the opportunity and responsibility to address the global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security to help create a better tomorrow for our planet."
By 2030, the German firm, which acquired Monsanto last year, pledges to:
• Reduce the environmental impact of crop production by 30% by developing technologies that help farmers scale down crop protection use.
• Reduce field greenhouse gas emissions from the most emitting crops systems in the regions Bayer serves by 30%.
• Empower 100 million smallholder farmers (farmers with less than 5 acres) in developing countries around the world by providing more access to sustainable solutions.
Condon said the firm decided when it acquired Monsanto that it wanted to establish entirely new sustainability standards with key performance indicators that can be validated by external parties and published and tracked annually. Just like annual financial goals and qualitative goals, executive compensation will be linked to reaching these sustainability goals.
"We think we need to be equally rigorous in measuring our progress on sustainability. Then it becomes more real for everybody," Condon said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. "For us, it demonstrates a further level of commitment to show that this isn't just (public relations). It goes to the core of the strategy."
Speaking to farmers, journalists and influencers from more than 40 countries, Condon and Bob Reiter, head of research and development for Bayer's crop science division, outlined new opportunities to protect crops based on a continuous improvement, a strong digital pipeline and what they described as "disruptive innovation" to develop personalized solutions for farmers.
Last year, Bayer invested about $2.5 billion in crop science research and development.
Recently, the company finalized an agreement with biopharmaceutical research company Arvinas to create a joint venture — newly named Oerth Bio- and explore how molecular-degrading proteins found in plants and animals can protect crops against threatening pests and diseases.
Condon said, on average, it takes 10 years to get to market for a new crop protection or biotech product because of all the testing, safety and regulatory requirements. "We are already working today on stuff that won't see the light of day until 2030 plus. We'd rather think in terms of generations rather than in terms of quarters."
Still, as the company looks ahead, its stock value is stressed as it tries to navigate the Monsanto acquisition and its future with thousands of lawsuits clouding Monsanto's legacy product, Roundup, which is applied on an average of 298 million acres of cropland in the U.S. every year and has been linked in the courts to cancer. Courts have already granted millions of dollars in compensation to plaintiffs. Those lawsuits have been appealed, but frequent television ads seek out new potential plaintiffs on a regular basis.
Condon says Bayer is on a dual path to deal with these legal challenges. One path is the judicial system. "We have three first instance verdicts that went against us. All of them go to appeal. Depending on the outcome, they will probably go through the appeals process and could very well end up at the Supreme Court level ... particularly if you think about the fact that one of the key arguments on the plaintiff's side is failure to warn. ... The EPA has clearly stated that no company can put any cancer-related warning on glyphosate because scientific consensus is it's not carcinogenic. So that would be misleading consumers."
"We think we are on very good grounds," Condon said.
The other route is out-of-court settlement. "We are in the process of mediation that was basically put in place by a federal judge in one of three cases," Condon says. "He wants us to explore the possibility of a settlement. We entered those discussions in good faith. But a settlement only makes sense if it's financially reasonable and if it's final. And of course, we need to make sure the product remains available for growers."