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To Advocate for Science and Agriculture, Empathy First – Then Facts
I haven’t slept in my own bed in Germany for weeks. Since February, I’ve been traveling around the U.S., where I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the latest R&D innovations at Bayer, Crop Science Division with many different audiences—from ag trade media and industry representatives at the Bayer AgVocacy Forum, to global thought leaders and decision-makers about human health innovations at the Alexandria Summit, to a younger, more “societal” crowd at South by Southwest that loves big ideas, but doesn’t necessarily have an agriculture or science background.
I’ve given speeches, participated on panels, given serious interviews and engaged in plenty of casual conversations. And no matter what topic has been discussed, I’ve tried to convey the same thing to every individual I’ve spoken with—that it’s not all about me. I want to know what’s on their minds and connect with them person-to-person, as opposed to scientist vs. non-scientist.
All this public speaking and advocating is still somewhat new for a guy who’s spent most of my career out of the spotlight, quietly running ag research and development programs—or, for a while, even our supply chain organization. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the personal connections.
Whenever I take one of those HR “personality tests,” my top-ranked strength ends up being analytical. Not shocking. But my second strength is typically empathy, which many people are surprised by. I guess scientists are not typically thought of as “people with feelings.”
Perhaps my own empathy stems from my background; my parents were European immigrants to Canada, who made their way there with no money and worked very hard to build a good life for their family. They had survived the horrors of World War II, and one of my grandfathers even disappeared in a labor camp, so they certainly lived through their share of heartbreak and struggles. I think I developed much empathy for the human experience just by listening to their stories.
Then when I was 14, my dad’s job moved us from Winnipeg to New Jersey, where I started high school as an outsider—not just from another town, but from another country—and had to work hard to earn acceptance and make friends. Thus, I also developed an acute sense of compassion through my own experiences and have always felt strongly about issues like inclusion, particularly in the workplace.
In conversations about science and agriculture, in a world that often seems to be largely anti-science, that ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes continues to serve me well.
I’ve walked through fields that have been decimated by pests or weeds or diseases—and I truly empathize for a grower’s need for better seeds and crop protection products that will lead to successful harvests—and at the same time, their need for those products to also help them farm more sustainably, so they can preserve their land and precious natural resources for future generations.
I also empathize with consumers who don’t have first-hand knowledge of the work being done in plant breeding labs and farmers’ fields, and the truly good motives of the people who are doing it. They see stories on social media that scare them and even if they don’t know if they’re true or not, they worry. They just want assurance that their food supply is safe and sustainable.
These are not opposing sides – at the end of the day, we all really want the same things. Scientists, growers, and others in the agriculture industry simply must do a better job of “agvocating.” We must find ways to bridge the gap between consumers’ concerns surrounding how their food is grown and the beneficial innovation that farmers need to successfully grow their crops using less resources. The technology actually enables the food that consumers want, so we just need to do a better job of connecting those dots for them – and that’s exactly what connecting with individuals on a personal level helps us do. Empathy opens the door to fact-sharing.
I always tell people that I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am proud to work for a company that is dedicated to using science to make lives better. Bayer is committed to a safe and secure food supply, as are all our farmer customers and partners. So my job is to not only help improve the human experience, but also to help people understand why and how we’re doing it – and it’s one I’m incredibly grateful to have.
Even if I do miss my own familiar bed sometimes. But I’m sure you can empathize.