Ag leaders talk tech and food at global forum

I found myself somewhere I didn’t belong. I felt like a child who had snuck out of his room to hear what the adults were talking about. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s security detail, which included one dog, gave me and my camera bag the green light to enter the room.
My initial thoughts were that this was not an event for farmers or those working in the ag industry. But I was wrong. Instead, I realized that while this particular event was largely city-centric, it covered issues that farmers know well. It addressed challenges that farmers understand. And it again reminded me of how much farmers know about how this world works — global trade, domestic consumption, world politics, environmental trends and all the dynamic muck in between.

“I wonder what the median salary is in this room?” asked the journalist sitting beside me. The answer I gave was way too low and exposed just how little I know of the people I was now observing.
I was at the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto, which ran from October 15 to 17 last year. Facilitated by the editors of Fortune Magazine, the by-invite-only event brought together the leaders of the world’s Fortune 500 companies for a few days of networking and workshops. It was slick. Quite slick.

Between me and the stage was a rope, a collection of office chairs and coffee tables for attendees to gather around — donated by renowned furniture designer, Herman Miller — and a lot of very well-dressed men and women.
Liam Condon, president of Bayer’s Crop Science division, was at the event as a panelist alongside Murad Al-Katib, AGT Food and Ingredients’ CEO and Carla Vernon, president of General Mills Natural & Organic Operating Unit, in a workshop called Feeding the World. This session was my reason for being there. I would take it in and then chat one-on-one with Condon in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel while sitting on a Herman Miller sectional.

But context is important. Condon’s session and my subsequent chat with him took place at the end of the conference — after I had sat in on a session about the trade war between China and the U.S., heard a talk given by Justin Trudeau and visited two farming operations in southern Ontario — and moments before my flight home.

China is not taking the hit the U.S. thinks it is, according to one session I attended. Other countries shipping products to China for assembly and export are the ones suffering. I also learned that the most affected in this trade war are multinational companies, many of which are headquartered in the U.S. Trudeau spoke briefly on the newly negotiated free-trade deal and about Canada’s desire to stay competitive, globally.

The day after that, I rented a small sedan and left busy downtown Toronto to visit a couple farming operations. The fresh air felt great.

Greg Hannam of Woodrill Ltd. spoke to Condon and a small entourage about his multi-faceted operation and how he hopes the level of service his company is used to receiving from Monsanto continues under Bayer.
Assurances were given.

The other farm — one in the throes of harvesting soybeans — was a chance for those of us on the tour to see Bayer technology in action. The farm owner was using the Climate FieldView platform in the cab of his combine to monitor and collect data on yields, varieties, crop types and much, much more.

There was a FieldView representative on the tour. I chatted with her about possibly implementing the program on my farm. It’s possible. Most things are possible. But making the investment has to make sense on a per-acre basis for farmers. It did for this farmer. He loves it. The program makes data collection on his operation accessible, shareable and useable. He was bound to say something positive — the soybeans he was harvesting were yielding north of 70 bushels per acre.

The day was a fitting lead-up to the Feeding the World workshop, slated for the last morning of the conference. (I couldn’t get the high-yielding soys out of my mind and I kept thinking about outfitting our tractors with tech needed to run FieldView — restless night.) “You just acquired Monsanto and that is a dirty word for many consumers. Did that come up for you when you were looking at that deal?” asked the session facilitator.

“We didn’t do the deal because of the reputation of Monsanto,” Condon said. “It was more related to the company’s portfolio and its people. At the end of the day, food is a highly emotional product. It’s consumed every day and people want to get a sense that it is wholesome and that nobody has played around with it.

“Ideally, it should also be produced in a way that doesn’t harm the planet. There is an ideology out there that nature will produce the best food. Reality is, mankind has always, through agricultural practices, developed food in interesting ways,” explains Condon. “Science allows us to do things in a much more targeted manner. But, as we do that, we have to be careful that we take consumers with us. Technology is far more advanced than consumer acceptance. What we need to do is invest much more time in explaining what some of the benefits are with some technologies.”

The workshop bent towards organic production more than once. Carla Vernon is head of General Mills’ natural and organic division and spoke of the company’s efforts to service a consumer base that wants its food to be as natural as possible. “We consider this form of returning to some of our old practices a form of innovation that we’re very excited about,” she said.

“I agree with you,” said Al-Katib. “But I think technology will allow us not to rely on the throwback.” He says that when he looks at the overall food trends, he sees a strong focus on “clean” labelling and that technology has a role to play here. “With the utilization of the satellite industry, the Internet of things, the ability to collect data, and then synthesize it, we have the ability to give consumers a truly traceable product.” The purpose of the session was to discuss the important role technology will play in feeding a growing population.

“Every consumer wants to eat food that is good for them, but also good for the planet,” said Condon. “I think we, as an industry, have made great strides on nutritional labelling. I think, particularly with digitalization, we can do a lot more to trace what is actually happening on the farm right through to what consumers are eating. But many still believe that science and food don’t belong together and that’s something we need to address.

” Condon had a flight to catch. So did I. We didn’t have much time following the session. I wanted to know if Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto would change anything at the farm level.

“In the short term, there will be no change,” he said. “They should expect the same quality service, the same quality products. And, as we integrate, farmers should notice things getting better. We’ll have more data through which farmers will be able to make smarter decisions.”

I no longer felt like I didn’t belong. “Hey. Finally. This is your time,” said a journalist colleague of mine as she was leaving the room before the ag workshop began. “This one is for you.”

It’s hard to know what a group of Fortune 500 CEOs will do with the information. But it’s clear that agriculture is starting to become a priority in places it previously had no place. People are starting to pay attention to it. And that’s a good thing.