Glyphosate is totally safe, and vital for the delivery of sustainable farming, Bayer executive Liam Condon tells Claire Fox
Liam Condon has come a long way since his teenage years spent doing "back-breaking work" picking vegetables on a neighbours' farm on the Navan Road in Dublin 7.
Now the head of crop sciences at Bayer, the 50-year-old - who attended DCU, as well as university in Berlin - can speak six languages including German, Chinese and Japanese.
Although his background is in general pharmaceuticals, he has been a member of the board of management of Bayer AG since 2016 and was one of the key figures who spearheaded the company's €56bn takeover of biotech giant Monsanto.
However, the sealing of the monumental business deal has been overshadowed by controversy.
In August a Californian jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289m in damages to school grounds-keeper Dewayne Johnson, who claimed that glyphosate in its Roundup product caused his terminal cancer.
The jury stated that Monsanto had failed to warn consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weed killers.
Johnson's lawyers used evidence from the World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which stated that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans".
Monsanto is appealing the ruling but is now facing a string of similar cases triggered by the California ruling.
Mr Condon tells the Farming Independent that he is confident that the appeals process will be successful and that Roundup will remain "as widely available as it is today" as he claims it is imperative to food sustainability and the daily work of farmers.
"Roundup has been on the market for over 40 years and approved by over 160 authorities around the world. Every regulatory authority has looked at this again and again and they have all come to the conclusion that it is safe and effective, every one of them," he says.
"There's no doubts around the safety of the product if every regulatory agency says this is safe. We are completely behind the product, and farmers around the world tell us they absolutely need this and we have to make sure it stays available to farmers."
Mr Condon says that IARC is one of four arms of the WHO that examine cancer risks and was the only one of the four that stated that Roundup probably causes cancer.
"IARC basically put glyphosate in to the same category as hot drinks, red meat, aloe vera… so a lot of stuff that you would say is consumed or used on a daily basis by an average person without anybody screaming for the products to be banned," he says.
Mr Condon claims that products like glyphosate only improve the quality of food and says work needs to be done to improve the communication around their benefits.
"There is a perception if you leave nature alone it will look after itself and food will be abundant and it doesn't need innovation or technology and we definitely don't need chemicals," he says.
"The reality since the dawn of mankind… man has constantly intervened and food available today is only available because farmers have developed things forward.
"It comes down to beliefs that nature is always good and any fiddling around with nature is always bad, but innovation or technology is always built on what is happening anyway and it's basically copied and applied in a resource-efficient way."
While Mr Condon feels that sustainability is often a "buzz-word", he thinks it is key to proving to consumers that farmers can be part of the solution to the environmental challenge and not part of the problem.
"Most people nowadays are not involved in farming anymore. The reason everyone can follow their dream and do whatever job they want today and not have to constantly search for food is because farmers are so successful and productive," he says.
"Most people have no real clue what agriculture is all about and what challenges farmers face. There is very little appreciation that farmers actually create, and that's a real challenge that needs to be addressed.
"I spent quite a few summers on a farm and it was backbreaking work, so I have lots of respect for farmers. We know food is going to be there every day because we can rely on farmers, and that part gets lost in translation.
"If people don't understand the challenges that farmers are facing - and we are talking about innovation and technology - and the average person on the street can't see the benefit for farmers, then that innovation and technology is going to be rejected.
"We need to go back to basics and explain what modern agriculture is all about and how farmers work to make sure that sustainability is actually lived and not just a buzzword."
With the right approach, Mr Condon believes that the Irish agri-food industry could be "carbon neutral if not carbon negative" and feels that technology and innovation can play a huge part in making that a reality.
"Things like no-till farming is enabled by glyphosate of all things and it keeps the carbon in the ground and doesn't release it through tillage in the atmosphere," he adds. "Things like that can have a tremendous impact on carbon emissions and reducing the amount of tractors that need to go out in to the field if there's less tillage.
"High-tech irrigation systems that are available today can be used to minimise the amount of water that's required. This allows farmers to be extremely precise in the amount of inputs they use - and it doesn't get spoken about often enough."
While Mr Condon thinks Ireland is more self-critical in terms of its climate performance due to the pressure of its "green island image", he does feel that the agri-food sector has more to do in order to reach climate targets.
"I think it has done a good job but there's a lot more that could be done," he says. "The better the image of sustainability in Ireland, the better the chance of exports for Irish food so there is an opportunity there to not just advertise the green Ireland but to make sure that the way food is produced is really sustainable.
"It's about showing that it's not just propaganda and advertising but it's based on the reality on how food is produced."
A conversation with one of Europe's leading agri-business figures cannot be completed without discussing Brexit, which Mr Condon feels is a debate that is "being completely blown out of proportion", saying it is "phenomenal how much energy is being put in to debating Brexit".
"From our business point of view there won't be any supply issues, we've got alternative place scenarios no matter what happens," he says. "With a hard Brexit, though, the connectivity to the UK will be very bumpy, not only for farmers but the entire industry for quite some time."
A more pressing issue for Bayer is its announcement in November that it would cut 12,000 jobs out of over 118,000 worldwide in a restructuring strategy.
"It's not a knee-jerk reaction, it will be very well planned and structured," says Mr Condon. "In Germany there is a significant older population who are looking at early retirement and there will be incentives for those people who are leaving the company, and some roles will not be replaced."
Drone technology is revolutionising crop protection and management for small and medium sized farmers in Asia, and Europe won't be far behind.
Liam Condon points out that a huge amount of small and medium-sized farmers are using drone technology, which has changed the way they work.
"What we have seen in Asia-Pacific is a huge uptake of farmers using drones. The farmer gets a kit where all they do is press start and stop and they don't need to do anything," he says.
"The drone flies around the field by the maps and then through sensors it sees where there is potential fungal disease, and in that specific part of the field it will spray an application of fungicide, or where there are weeds, and will spray only that part of the field that is affected," he says.
Mr Condon explains that the technology is working out much more labour- and cost-efficient than the previous manual methods of spraying using a backpack.
"The drone does the job for them and it's a super example of how technology can help make work easier and more precise and definitely more cost-efficient for farmers," he says.
While not all farmers in rural areas may be able to use drones due to poor internet access, Mr Condon says this doesn't mean they are excluded from using agri-tech.
"We have smallholder farmers who are basically the poorest of the poor with very little access to technology and even they use digital platforms to help them improve how they farm. Farmers get information on their phone through SMS," he says.
"If it can work for them, it can work for farmers in Ireland and Europe."
Around 60 million farmers worldwide are paying to use a field mapping service which aims to move away from the standardised method of planting crops.
Liam Condon says that the digital platform, which is called Climate Field View was launched by Bayer's subsidiary The Climate Corporation in the US and will soon launch in Europe.
"The system tracks in real time the fertility of the field and how much fertility they are pulling in from a part of the field and documents all of this," he explains.
"It gives them immediate recommendations for the next planting season and tells farmers which part of the field was lacking nutrition because the yield was pretty weak. It also shows which parts are more fertile and which parts are more susceptible to disease. It gives the farmer the chance to optimise everything that's happening in the field."
Mr Condon says the system, which costs $1,000 a year to use, "pays back multiple times" as farmers are not wasting valuable resources or over-using seed.
"In the past there has been a standardised approach of every field being treated more or less equally, but today we can see even within a field that there is tremendous variation," he says. "Planting the same amount of seeds in every part of the field doesn't make sense it would be wasting, good precious resources.
"The maps visualise that for farmers. Green equals good and red equals bad. It tells them what needs to be done in a particular area."