I can hardly breathe in the musty, stalled train underneath the Dusseldorf Airport. Europe isn’t a big fan of, well, fans — or anything that operates to circulate air. I sneak another swipe of my deodorant before surveying the passengers around me. They all look equally confused, conversing in different languages at first and finally in English. We’re trying to decipher if we’re on the right train to the main station, where I plan on getting on another train to Amsterdam.
I lean across the aisle and ask an wrinkled, petite, and impeccably dressed woman if she, too, is enroute to the main station. She is, and we strike up a conversation. She seems very wealthy and well-traveled — recently back from Africa and on her way to Tuscany. Ann Arbor, Michigan is home. She asks about me, assuming I am a student.
“No, I’m a writer. I’m traveling to Amsterdam just to dink around for a couple days, then I’m coming back to Germany for a conference,” I explain. She inquires what kind of conference, and here’s where the rubber meets the road in these conversations.
“It’s an agricultural conference hosted by Bayer Crop Science,” I say. I go on to talk about the 200 writers, bloggers, and journalists that have been invited to tour farms and talk to farmers, Bayer executives, and thought leaders about the future of agriculture and the most pressing needs in the industry.
“Bayer… So you’re okay with chemicals in our food?” she asks.
It’s a common misconception, and one that really hurts my heart — the idea that farmers or even big agricultural companies would somehow benefit from and consciously choose to mismanage land, livestock, and environment. Why would you abuse the very source of your livelihood? What good business sense would it make to mistreat the animals, soil, and air that pays you and that feeds you? Some consumers seem to believe that food happens because factory farmer walks into an eroded field in hazmat suit, sprays green chemicals across the soil, and shrugs.
The truth as I have experienced it is this: Farmers are actively cultivating their business like any other entrepreneur — through careful and diverse processes that serve both today's bottom line and tomorrow's needs. Crop diversity, soil conservation techniques, farm safety, water management, nature plots, bee health, and, yes, pesticide use, genetically modified crops or antibiotic treatment — all of these practices can come together to benefit the farmer, the land, animals, the food itself, and the millions of end consumers.
And don’t get me started on the immense privilege of food choice.
But that’s a lot to unpack in a single train ride. I take a breath and explain, excitedly, that Bayer has their hands in all kinds of agricultural innovations, technologies, and sustainability practices. I talk a bit about their work in bee health, and how impressed I’ve been by Bayer as I get to know them.
But Ann Arbor doesn’t want to hear it. She subjects me to a five minute history lesson on her work in a whole foods grocery store in the ‘80s (before it was cool to shop there, she says) and then jumps right back into how I get paid for a living. I explain that I write copy and content for brands and publications, and that I also own a branding studio with a designer where we craft logos and create websites for small business owners.
She raises a thinning brow.
“And you’re successful at that?”
“I’d say so.”
I've said it a million times, but it's a truth worth repeating: I owe my creative career to agriculture. I honed my writing skills through programs like 4H and FFA, and went on to graduate with an Agricultural Communications degree from Oklahoma State University, where I was passionately involved in programs that advocated for agriculture. I'm a few hours short of a master's degree in international agriculture, with a focus on entrepreneurship.
So when Bayer Crop Science invited me to be one of 20 global writers to attend their Future Farming Dialog in Germany, I was all in. The idea was to bring people from all over the world together to discuss the future of food.
The future is a hot breath on the back of farmer's necks, and soon we may all feel the heat: agricultural production needs to increase by 60 percent to feed 10 billion people by 2050. Every day the world population increases by 200,000 people. We can't create more land or strong arm the weather, so how are we going to accomplish the huge task of feeding everyone?
I was incredibly humbled to listen to farmers about the issues most affecting them and get an up-close look at the practices they're using to become increasingly more productive, profitable, and sustainable.
I visited a nearly 200-year-old family-owned farm in Rommerskirchen, Germany. This farm was a Bayer ForwardFarm — a place where the latest sustainable practices are tested and demonstrated. I had a delicious dinner on a dairy farm. At every stop, panelists and groups of different people and professions were exchanging about agriculture.
Things got a little heated when writers, farmers, and panelists posed this question to each other: should farmers be motivated by, or held to, a moral obligation to feed the world no matter what? Is farming a charity or a business? And if it's the former, then for whom?
I think World Farmers' Organization president, first female president of the Zambia Agricultural Organization and veterinarian Dr. Evelyn Nguleka said it best: "Farmers should start making money. Agriculture is a business. Period. We are a producer of food and livelihoods. We need to find means and ways to make sure the farmer is paid properly, because the small scale farmers are the people most affected by food insecurity."
I gobbled up every word she said. I thought of my creative entrepreneur crowd, and how we would all collectively cry bullshit at the idea of doing a job (any job!) for free. We believe people should absolutely be compensated for their labor and their knowledge. But we're also the same crowd who, generally, holds the most privilege at the Whole Foods checkout. So what gives? Is there a way for the two groups of people to see their similarities and lend a hand to their respective industries, instead of constantly trying to prove the other uneducated or unethical?
My head is still swimming with questions.
- Why is innovation, technology, and profitability markers of success in every other industry except agriculture?
Do we choose products from “family-owned farms” to feel better about ourselves? Can we really pat ourselves on the back for underpaying and over regulating farmers?
When did the phrase “family-owned farm” become a marketable, profitable substitute for “small scale and struggling”? (It’s worth noting here that about 97 percent of all farms, large and small, are owned and operated by families, not a board of corporate stakeholders.)
Why is a profitable farmer or agricultural provider perceived as unethical and untrustworthy to consumers?
Why do we demand innovation in all areas of life and business, but are suspicious of innovation and technology in agriculture?
What constitutes a healthy checks-and-balances in food production?
Can the customer always be right if that same customer is six generations or more removed from production agriculture?
Is there a way for both consumer and producer to have a voice, or are we doomed to forever shouting over each other?
These complex, often emotional questions have to be addressed before we can move forward in feeding the world.
I like what Bayer Crop Science president Liam Condon had to say on the matter: "Modern farming, environmental sustainability, and biodiversity do go together. And because farmers are so good at what they do, we can afford to be writers and journalists and creatives and artists."
If you want to jump into the conversation, learn more about farming, or get schooled from farmers themselves, here are a few of my favorite current reads:
Here’s a case for industrial farming, which makes up about 8 percent of all farms in America.
Cosmo dishes on what it’s really like to be a farmer.
Germany is experiencing a huge boom in veganism, but not everyone is on board.
Here’s what hand harvesting crops looks like.
Believe it or not, you can skip the organic aisle and still be a good mom.
GMOs are not so bad, according to about 900 peer-reviewed studies and a 408-page report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
Here’s an hour long podcast where Bill Nye talks about GMOs and his change of heart.