Farming News - Case Study - Bridging the Innovation Disconnect in Agriculture

Case Study - Bridging the Innovation Disconnect in Agriculture

10 Jul 2018

By Adrian Percy, Head of R&D, Bayer Crop Science

We live in an age of astounding technological breakthroughs, moving from pay phones to smartphones and paper maps to Google maps in what seems like the blink of an eye. Medical advances have enabled precision diagnostics and robotic devices to quickly pinpoint problems and alleviate suffering.  And now we’re exploring genetic tools that may one day bring sight to the blind and prevent incurable diseases.  We rightly celebrate these modern technologies, but the same cannot always be said about agriculture.

However earlier this year the UK Government announced £90 million for agri-tech, helping UK businesses to use breakthrough technology such as AI and big-data analytics to transform the sector and the lives of those involved. This provides an exciting opportunity for us to shape a future where the sector is accepted as being a focus area for technological advancement.

By any meaningful measure, modern agriculture is an unqualified success. Farmers today produce more food on less land and feed more people cost-effectively than before. But instead of celebrating the advances that made this possible, many consumers are fearful of them. Why do they embrace technological advances in virtually all other fields, and yet expect farmers to revert to agrarian practices used more than a century ago?  Clearly, there is an “innovation disconnect” when it comes to food production, and if we are to feed the world we must bridge this gap.

It’s important to understand why this innovation disconnect exists. In highly developed countries, only a fraction of the population, often less than three percent, work on a farm. While it’s easy to see how consumers can appreciate the technological advances that make their smartphones so useful, there is relatively little understanding or appreciation of the innovations that make our food production successful. Consumers are literally disconnected from the farm.  And that’s only half of the story.

Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published more than 50 years ago, a greater environmental awareness is now established in our public consciousness.  The benefits of industrial chemicals, including pesticides, have been overshadowed by concerns about human health and the environment. Add to that a general mistrust of institutions, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for misunderstanding.  Recent worldwide surveys tell us that while most consumers support innovations that help fight global hunger, they are also concerned that the tools used today may be harming people and the planet.

Addressing the disconnect between the public and agriculture is not a one-way conversation. We should instead start by listening to consumer concerns and finding common ground on where we all agree. We know they care deeply about human safety, biodiversity, water quality, soil health, and environmental sustainability—the same considerations that are driving the next generation of agricultural innovations.

The public’s distance from farming breeds distrust in modern ag. It’s up to us in ag to help bridge the disconnect and only way is through engaging in dialog.

 From virtual reality to Google Maps tech advances are engrained in our daily lives.We need this level of acceptance for agricultural innovations as well

While we in agriculture are proud of the success of modern farming, it doesn’t matter if consumers don’t believe what we say.  We need to better explain why innovation is not the cause of their concerns, but instead is the solution to them. And we must also understand that because consumers ultimately define what foods or farm practices are acceptable, we should be attentive to their concerns and responsive to their needs.  That doesn’t mean we abandon our principles, but rather that we improve the quality of our conversations, and engage now.

When people stand before the grocery aisle at a local supermarket, many don’t realize they are seeing the results of modern agriculture’s innovation. They want more choice and variety without technological advancements in agriculture – but that is a false expectation.  With the world’s population increasing, we must find new ways to safely and sustainably increase food production by 50 percent by 2050. We know this cannot happen by adopting the farming practices of yesterday.

The industry has worked diligently to create new tools and practices that are safer and more sustainable.  That’s simply a result of farming’s continuous evolution: Agriculture today is not the same as it was 30 years ago, nor will it be the same as it is today in 30 years time.  Farming’s not perfect.  It never has been, but humans have the capacity to learn and adapt and that’s what makes us endlessly strive for perfection. 

If the public has little understanding of the realities of farming, then it’s up to us in agriculture to help bridge that disconnect. We must draw a clear connection to the innovations we pursue, and the direct benefits people will experience within their families and communities, as a result.  We must talk openly, clearly and specifically about the challenges we face and the race for solutions.

In many ways, reconnecting people with farming is just another challenge that agriculture has had to face over thousands of years.  I’m confident that we will succeed because in the end, we’re all in this together.