Bayer boss: Digital farming-sustainable production link ‘not yet clear’ to policymakers

Tremblay: "The CAP is becoming greener and greener, focusing on how to produce food more sustainably, something that can be achieved with innovations like digital farming." [Bayer]

This article is part of our special report Where are the e-tools to modernise the CAP?.

The connection between digital farming and sustainable production is not yet clear in the minds of many policymakers, Bayer’s Bruno Tremblay told EURACTIV.com in an interview, adding that some farmers look at this kind of innovation as a way to control them.

Bruno Tremblay is the head of EMEA at Bayer. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna on the sidelines of the “Future of Farming Dialogue” event on 17-19 September in Monheim, Germany.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

  • Policymakers don’t fully understand the connection between digital farming and sustainable production
  • Europe thinks more about how it produces and not so much about agricultural competitiveness
  • Digital farming and gene-editing will be the key drivers for future farming
  • The key question is whether we want Europe as an exporting or a self-sufficient region
  • EFSA needs to communicate better the nature of their work.

How do you see the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals? Critics suggest that the much-awaited introduction of new technologies and precision farming practices in the sector is not sufficiently supported.

Originally the CAP’s aim was to ensure a sufficient agricultural production of food in Europe, following all the tensions we had after World War II. After reaching self-sufficiency in the 1970s, the purpose of the CAP became allocating subsidies to ensure that we were still producing agricultural goods across Europe, managing more or less which sort of crops to grow and the quantity to produce.

My feeling is that the CAP will now be more focused on how goods are produced. There are no more incentives based on the size but rather on the “green” component of production. The CAP is becoming greener and greener, focusing on how to produce food more sustainably, something that can be achieved with innovations like digital farming.

But I think the connection between digital farming and sustainable production is not yet clear in the minds of many policymakers. Digitalization does not mean confiscating data from the growers; it’s more about the positive impact that precision farming will have on sustainable and productive farming in Europe.

Indeed, some growers look at this kind of innovation as a way to control them…

Data always belongs to the growers, even after they choose to share it on our platform. We cannot use it for any purpose, either internally or externally, without their prior consent. The data may then be used for giving growers a better understanding of all the decisions they must make on their fields.

We see these digital platforms more as a solution provider. The idea is to generate value for our customers and our company by providing digital technologies to growers.

There is an ongoing discussion in Europe about the future of farming in light of increasing global competitiveness. What do you expect from the next European Commission?

The key issue that will be interesting to look at is the vision for European agriculture in the future. Particularly we need to understand whether we still aim to be an exporting region in the world, or whether we are going more in the direction of having a self-sustainable production, focusing more on organic farming and being self-sufficient.

In Europe, there is a tendency to think more about how we produce and not so much about agricultural competitiveness. I believe that farming in Europe would benefit from a broader access to innovation and new technologies. Companies should participate more in dialogue with different stakeholders, while today there is a belief that innovation in agriculture is not what consumers want. We should interact more to understand consumer expectations and communicate more transparently on our innovations.

Again, the question is about our vision: is it just to feed ourselves or to be an exporting region towards the other Mediterranean and African countries? From a political point of view, Europe is trying to help Africa because of the migration challenge, and I guess agriculture is a part of the answer.

Does Bayer have a strategy for Africa?

We are investing to help African countries in reaching self-sufficiency. But it will take some years and at the same time, there is a significant growth of the population. Hunger and starvation in Africa will trigger more and more immigrants towards Europe. I believe agriculture should drive growth and prosperity and should not be used not only to feed the European population. It should also play a political role towards Africa and Mediterranean third countries.

A recent EU Court decision on gene editing has “shaken” the agri-food industry and Liam Condon told me that it “will slow down innovation”. Do you share this view?

Yes, we were disappointed with the Court’s decision to classify gene editing with the same regulation as GMOs. It is a missed opportunity for agricultural innovation in Europe. Digital farming, gene editing and other plant breeding methods are the key drivers for the future of farming in Europe and thanks to both we can have much more sustainable farming.

Gene editing is a much less invasive technology of breeding and much more accurate. Furthermore, these methods can significantly cut the development time of new plant varieties to less than half of the current duration of as much as 15 years. On top of that, if you manage to properly develop hybrids with higher resistance to certain disease or insects, then you could probably use fewer chemicals, and we have studies proving that this technology significantly reduces the use of chemicals.

I’m concerned for Europe if it decides to reject this technology, while in North and South America, or even in Asia, they’ll move very quickly into these new breeding techniques since they see benefits that go beyond even GMO technology. Europe’s breeders and farmers will lose out, without a chance to explore the huge potential and benefits of these plant breeding innovations in practice.

The glyphosate debate has divided EU stakeholders and sparked discussions about the credibility of the EU decision-making process and whether it is based on scientific evidence or emotionalised. What is your position?

The fact is that all these emotions were created when we had the renewal of glyphosate registration at European level back in November 2017. But there is no question or no debate by any national agencies or regulatory authority around the world where products based on Glyphosate are registered. Glyphosate has been a valuable and safe tool for farmers and other users for over 40 years. Glyphosate is probably the active ingredient with the highest number of scientific studies in the industry.

It’s more a political debate and to address it, we must demonstrate more dialogue and cooperation with local governments because they need to feel the proximity of our team. We are working on the safety data we could share with the public as a part of the trust that we need to regain since the debate is very emotional and passionate, but science has not had many roles in this discussion. In some countries this debate goes beyond glyphosate: it’s a general concern about pesticides and how pesticides have been registered.

Recently, there was a discussion on how EFSA is working on the registration process and I think that national government and EU agencies must be more pro-active in communicating what is their work and how they work.

We are only one of many glyphosate players in Europe. For us is an important product and it’s critical for growers to produce safe and affordable food because it is part of their normal agronomical practice. Therefore, we don’t see how growers could replace glyphosate with a safer and more cost-efficient product in the future.

So not even a wave of rulings like the ones that happened in the US could affect Bayer operations in Europe?

We disagree with the verdict and intend to seek trial court review and appeal, if necessary. What happened in the U.S. was a specific jury decision in California relating to a labelling discussion about whether there was enough warning information on the label. More than 800 scientific studies – including an independent study which followed more than 50,000 licensed pesticide applicators and farm workers and their spouses for more than 20 years – and regulatory authorities all over the world confirm that glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides are safe for use when used according to label instructions.

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