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7 Things I Learned at Bayer’s Future of Farming Dialog

Ever heard of wet science and dry science? I hadn’t either. Hint: It revolves around data.

Each year, agricultural editors do their share of attending company meetings. Some are good, some aren’t so good, and some stick out like a barb in your throat and force you to think. The latter thought sums up the meeting I just attended at Bayer Crop Science’s global headquarters in Monheim, Germany. Here are some takeaways I received from Bayer’s 2017 Future of Farming Dialog meeting.

1. Wet science vs. dry science.
Ever heard that one before? Me either. It’s a real thing, though, says Adrian Percy, global head of research and development for Bayer Crop Science. 

Wet science describes the stereotypical bespectacled scientist in the lab coat handling vials of various concoctions. Laboratory work isolating various compounds still is important, says Percy. 

Increasing in importance, though, is dry science – that dealing with data. “As we have developed R and D (research and development) capabilities, we have moved from wet to dry science,” he says. “Scientists still do lab experiments, but they also analyze data.”

It’s akin to Big Data that farmers are increasingly immersing themselves in. 

 “The more data you have, the better the (agronomic) recommendation that can be made,” says Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science. 

2. Predictable regulation is best.
The EPA is a favorite whipping boy of farmers, many of whom say had become too powerful under the Obama administration. 

Compared with environmental agencies of other nations, though, the EPA is one of the more science-based regulatory authorities worldwide, says Percy. 

“What is more important to us are predictable regulations, says Percy. When Bayer Crop Science is developing products, it’s easier to make decisions early on with a predictable regulatory agency. 

3. Soil health is a way to feed a growing population.
Talk to any agricultural company, and it will tell you its products are needed to feed a growing global population that’s estimated to hit 9.7 billion by 2050. Still, products alone won’t be able to do it. Improving soil health will also be needed, says Annie Dee, president of Dee River Ranch in Aliceville, Alabama. 

 “When I got out of college, my dad bought property in Florida in the 1950s, and I went to work on that farm,” she says.  “In the late 1980s, I moved to Alabama. I started farming in sandy soils (in Florida) and then heavy soils in Alabama. One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had is to improve soil health and to build organic matter and improve the CEC (cation exchange capacity) of soils. Improving the soil is a real way to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050.”

4. The real bucks are in adding value to commodities. 
I was standing in a lunch line with Ben Berger, who’s a food safety manager and agronomist for Roveg Fruit RV, a food company in the Netherlands. I commented about the U.S. corn/soybean/small grain commodity business being a difficult one, one which continually weeds out high-cost producers. He listened intently before saying, “Your farmers have to look at offering value.”

He then told me about how farmers in the Netherlands make the most of their scant farmland through high-value vegetable crops like sweet cucumbers. True to their name, they’re sweet and crunchy. They’re good and they’re good for you. They’re marketed just like candy bars in that country’s version of convenience/gas stores. That’s just one reason this seemingly innocuous country reclaimed from the sea is an agricultural powerhouse. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-sustainable-farming/

“Dutch farmers know how to market,” says Berger. 

5. Transparency is vital.
Agriculture has been criticized for lack of transparency. That results in some pretty dismal consumer trust, echoed in these findings from a consumer study Bayer commissioned this year.
• 62% believe GMOs should be banned
• 73% believe pesticides should be banned
• 67% are uncomfortable with the use of digital tools to apply crop-protection products

It’s not all bad news, though. In the same survey:
• 93% said innovation helps grow more food
• 87% said innovation helps fight global hunger
• 82% said innovation helps preserve the environment 

 Bayer’s Condon believes more transparency could improve consumer acceptance of technologies like GMOs, pesticides, and digital tools. 

“There is a global push for data transparency,” he says. That’s why Bayer will now proactively share regulatory safety documents. “Of course, we will not reveal proprietary data, but we will share the relevant regulatory safety documents,” he says.

This echoes the belief of Barry Dunn, the South Dakota State University president I profiled in a blog earlier this year. http://www.agriculture.com/news/sf-blog/my-first-boss-barry

“We can’t lock food production behind a closed door and say ‘trust us,’ ” says Dunn. “We have to be transparent. We have made swine production a mystery in that we would not let anyone in to look. Last October, we dedicated our new swine facility that allows parties like consumers and policy-makers a window into swine production, without shower-in and shower-out policies. 

“Water quality is another issue. We have a hypoxic zone (in the Gulf of Mexico) that causes people to look upstream and wonder what is going on. There are a tremendous amount of nutrients coming down that (Mississippi) river. Until we solve the water-quality issue, I think we will be hard pressed to gain consumer trust.

“We have farming systems that can help prevent that, but not everyone uses them,” he adds. “At SDSU, we’ve designed our new swine and cow-calf research units so no animal waste will enter the Missouri or Mississippi River watersheds. Both are designed to show how animal agriculture can have minimal impact on the environment and be part of a sustainable food system.”

6. Lab-grown meat. Really. 
A couple years ago, I was on a panel at a United Soybean Board meeting when a farmer asked about lab-grown meat. I was stumped. 

Well, there is such a thing. “Memphis Meats (http://www.memphismeats.com) produces beef, chicken, and pork without raising the animals,” says Gerd Leonhard, a futurist and CEO of The Futures Agency, Zurich, Switzerland. “Cultured meat is expensive, but it will decrease over time.” 

Your guess is as good as mine how this will impact the livestock industry. It is indicative, though, of a theme that Leonhard repeatedly stressed during his presentation. 

“Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years,” he says.

7. The end of oil. Really really. 
That last quote ties into this one by Leonhard: “The end of oil is coming within my lifetime. By the time Trump’s pipeline is built, no one will want to buy the gas to put in their cars. We will have cheaper renewable energy (like solar) that will beat oil economically,” he says.

Traditionally, oil companies have been big hitters on S&P stock lists. That will change, says Leonhard. Another industry is already dwarfing oil revenues: data (including the type your farms generate). 

“Data is really the new oil now,” he says. “Last year, data companies pulled in $7.6 trillion in revenues, more than oil companies.”

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