Brian Lowry: Implementing sustainable business practices in agriculture

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and how can organizations implement sustainable business practices?

Here, Brian Lowry, deputy general counsel at Bayer Crop Science U.S., gives his take on sustainability and the broad impact it can have on people, animals and the environment.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Brian Lowry. Click below to hear the full audio.

David:            I’m here with Brian Lowry, deputy general counsel at Bayer Crop Science U.S. Welcome, Brian!

Brian:             Thank you. 

David:            In your role at Bayer, a lot of what you do is related to sustainability and making the company more sustainable, so tell me about some of the things that you think are very important in that area.

Brian:             Well, I think, when you look at sustainability, you have to understand that it is not a single deliverable; it is a dimensional deliverable that includes everything from human rights to environment to social responsibility to good governance rule of law. Sustainability cannot be defined in a consistent way for every single person. The Brundtland Report that came out back in 1980s actually gave what became the generally accepted definition, but we’ve moved quite a ways in those 30 years and, over time, we have found sustainability to be a much more dimensional challenge and opportunity.


David:            So, let’s talk a little bit about the UN’s Agenda 2030 that was rolled out in 2015 and what the implications are for that.

Brian:             Certainly. I oftentimes think of Agenda 2030 a little bit differently than some other people. Many folks look at Agenda 2030 as being coextensive with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), which were, indeed, signed and adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in September of 2015. Agenda 2030 is indeed about the SDGs, but it’s also about other commitments and other activities that also went on in 2015.

                        During 2015, we actually had three other agreements come into place, all of which twist with the SDGs to create a very strong tug for Agenda 2030, which is a sustainability agenda for the world. Those other agreements include the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction; the Paris Accord on climate change, negotiated under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change; of course, the SDGs; and the last would be the Addis Action Agenda, which is on financing for development, negotiated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


David:            That’s a lot of stuff.

Brian:             That’s a lot of stuff. It’s a lot of reading, but there is a really interesting piece that weaves through all of those agreements, which is not always picked up when people talk about Agenda 2030. That interesting theme that weaves through all of them and that we see coming to the forefront in many discussions is a rights-based approach to sustainability and to the world. In each of those multilateral agreements — whether it’s an environmental agreement, like Climate; whether it’s a financing agreement, like the Addis Action Agenda — they all have a rights-based approach woven through it, and they all explicitly call out human rights and recognize the importance of a full realization of human rights for all people. These four agreements, when twisted together and create that tug, we will tug people out of poverty. We will tug the world into a better place. We will tug business into being more sustainable and more collaborative and actually earning the public trust that it so desperately needs.


David:            That’s exciting.

Brian:             I get a little bit excited about it, indeed.


David:            So, this is not the first time that the UN has set a big batch of goals like this. I think, maybe, in 1992, they rolled out Agenda —

Brian:             Agenda 21.


David:            Agenda 21, yeah.

Brian:             That was the Rio Conference, very focused on the environment.


David:            And how close did we get to those goals? These, of course, are very aspirational, right?

Brian:             You must have high ambition to make a difference. Doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. That’s not an original quote, I promise, but the fact is, Agenda 21 came out of Rio. The Agenda 2030 actually started many years before 2015, because agreements aren’t negotiated in one meeting, but it truly was Rio+20 where the governments and the civil society and the private sector all came together and said, “This is the world we want. This is where we’re headed.” It was from that negotiation and that document, “The world we want, with no one left behind,” that the Sustainability Development Goals were born.


David:            I guess, if you wanted to criticize those sorts of things, it would be based on maybe a cynicism that, “Oh, that’s crazy. That’s a pipedream,” but that doesn’t make it any less important to strive for something like that and push the needle and try to work for a better world for everyone.

Brian:             Absolutely. I think that cynicism is a real challenge for people in the developed world. When we wake up in the morning and we don’t turn the light off in our bathroom, we don’t really think about how that could impact the generation that we haven’t seen or people we’ll never see.

                        There are generations of people that will suffer or benefit from the actions we take today, and there are people we will never see and don’t see today that will benefit from the actions we take today. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that one person turning off a lightbulb in a bathroom on one day is going to move the needle, but I would suggest that you can aggregate incremental contributions to a substantial impact.

                        The existential crisis that we have in the sustainable development discussion and dialogue — social discourse if you will — is that we are trying to put ourselves in the shoes of a generation not yet born. We’re trying to understand what it means in the streets of a megalopolis in 2030 or 2050, where there’s not enough water for people to drink or bathe or clean, and that’s difficult for us. That’s not our way of thinking. We think about turning off the light as impacting our electric bill, not impacting a child born in 2035.


David:            Yeah, that’s a good point. Why don’t we drill down a little bit on the Sustainable Development Goals? There’s where a lot of the focus is for companies that are diving in on sustainability. There are how many of them?

Brian:             There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals.


David:            That’s a lot, and they each have quite a bit of detail.

Brian:             There are targets and indicators that are articulated to give countries the opportunity to identify if they have achieved contributions, deliverables, KPIs — whatever phrase you want to use, but there are targets and indicators that allow the countries to measure how close they are getting to the outcomes that they have sought.


David:            Now, some of those goals are environmental, but they’re not all environmental. Will you talk us through them broadly?

Brian:             Certainly. SDG 13, SDG 14 and SDG 15 are principally planetary goals. They are planetary goals in that 13 is about climate action. You can imagine that the Paris Accord is linked very closely to that. Then you have Goal 14, which is life and water. This is about oceans. This is about microplastics. This is about overfishing, acidification. There are many targets and indicators about what it takes to maintain a healthy planet. And then Goal 15 is about life on land. This is about biodiversity. This is about environmental responsibility, land clearing, land use conversion, et cetera. The other 14 deal with what makes this planet a better place for everyone. It covers poverty. It covers healthcare. It covers education, gender equality, good governance, sustainable production and consumption. All of these goals are about what we have as people and what we need as people to support the planet we want.


David:            I think the way you described it the other day was you said three of these are about a Planet of Plenty —

Brian:             And the other 14 are about a Planet of Plenty for everyone.


David:            Right, and that’s a really good way to look at it. I haven’t heard anybody say that before.

Brian:             Well, I stole the phrase “Planet of Plenty” from Alltech, of course. I heard it for the first time, quite honestly, on Saturday (at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference), when I was participating in the meetings. Mark Lyons stood up and talked about the vision of a planet of plenty. Having worked for Monsanto Company for 30 years, I’ve been through a couple of different,  probably the best way to put it is campaigns to characterize what it is we’re doing. This idea of creating plenty, this idea of food sufficiency disconnected from the rest of the world, to me, is hollow. It was hollow to me when Monsanto came out and said, “We’re going to feed the world.” We’re not going to feed the world with the technology and the products of Monsanto. What we’re going to do is we’re going to contribute to food security by creating food sufficiency to the best of our ability.

                        I think the Planet of Plenty that Mark spoke of and I think is a long-time theme in the company is really impressive because it is about putting forward food sufficiency, but a Planet of Plenty for everyone is about the collaboration, the partnerships, the engagement, the access that is really needed to ensure that it is for everyone.


David:            Yeah, it’s exciting, and it’s aspirational, definitely, like the SDGs in general. Tell me a little bit about what Bayer and, formerly, your part of it was Monsanto. What are you working to do specifically related to the SDGs?

Brian:             Legacy Monsanto, where I have most of my experience, is really how I must confine my comments, because I have not been in Bayer for even a year at this point, because the transaction just closed last summer. I just want to be sure that everyone understands my comments are limited Legacy Monsanto work.

                        We actually undertook a project to assess our products, our practices, what we sell, how we sell it, what their footprints are, to decide what are the most impactful places for our work. We had a self-designed set of criteria where we went through and we looked at these things, and we came up with a focus on three SDGs that were about what we do specifically: poverty, obviously, good health because of nutrition, and hunger. But then, we also looked at others that we impact. Our focus might be on those three, but the SDGs themselves are an intricately woven, well-balanced approach to the agenda. So, you can’t say, “I’m doing a great job creating a great deal of food, but I’m not paying attention to run-off or nitrogen management. That’s irrelevant. It’s all about food.” No, it’s not, because you might have enough food, but if you don’t have water, or you don’t have healthcare, or you don’t have access to education — it doesn’t matter because you’re just going to have wasted food.

                        So, really, it’s important for Monsanto, when we were doing this, to look at where can we impact — where is our greatest substantial contribution? We looked at that and then we built around it. We have projects on everything from nutrient management, we have projects on precision planting, where do you plant, what’s the compaction of the soil like, what’s the irrigation requirements, et cetera. So, we had a lot of practices that we brought in to actually talk about and look at and consider whether those could make a difference, and then we take those out to our customers and our farmers.

                        We similarly looked at things like, how does a cellphone enable a smallholder farmer in India to understand the market, to understand insect pressure? We built a program now called FarmRice where, on FarmRice, they could connect to a 24-hour call center, and they would get automatic information daily about weather, about prices, about insect pressure — but if they also saw a leaf crawler that they hadn’t seen before, if they found insects they couldn’t identify, they could take a picture on their mobile phone, send it in to the call center, and one of our experts would respond and tell them what they were looking at, what they thought the concern was. It was about empowering local people to make their own decisions. This was a service that we started in the corn space, and we are actively working to expand it.

                        So, when you can actually help people who are making day-to-day decisions, as I said earlier, about those small, incremental contributions, if you have 10,000 to 100,000 farmers in India all suddenly having access to information about how to manage drought, how to manage insect pressure, et cetera, you suddenly have created a substantial impact. That’s really what this is about, when we think about the SDGs; it’s about the impact on the planet, how we minimize it, live within planetary boundaries and maximize the personal position of each individual.


David:            I think a lot of companies that are maybe smaller than Bayer and, formerly, Monsanto for the activities you’re describing that are just kind of starting out on this journey, they’re trying to figure out, “How are we going to pay for all this? What are we going to do?” Talk a little bit about the evolution of your sustainability-related projects in the company and the discussion that went on.

Brian:             Well, I don’t think it’s much different than what the discussion was in many other companies. I think, in the 1980s, when I joined the company, the Brundtland Report had just been issued and people thought, “Wow! That’s pretty interesting, but that’s for governments. We are a good corporate citizen through our philanthropy.” Sustainability and philanthropy became equivalents in many conversations. Even in the investment space, when the Carbon Disclosure Project came up — and now, of course, there’s Water Disclosure and lots of disclosures — when those projects came up, people thought, “That’s pretty interesting. That’s for the environmentally friendly and the environmentally-sound.” And Name the Polluter, all these kinds of campaigns that went on.

And there were many companies, when they would get the survey, that would look at it and say, “We’re institutionally traded. Our investors don’t care about this. It doesn’t matter. So, if few people in public affairs want to fill it out, or a few people over here in environmental science want to fill it out, that’s fine, but this isn’t really mainstream investment.” Candidly, they were probably right; it probably wasn’t mainstream investment. They were socially responsible investors, many of them smaller funds, many of them European, and so the conversation was, “This belongs to someone else. This isn’t really core to us. This isn’t about how we are as a company. This is about what people want to know.”

                        I think the conversation has evolved to the conversation about how we are as a company, not what we do or what we sell, but how we are — how do we sell it, how do we develop it, how do we bring it to market, how do we steward it, how do we assess the life cycle of that product and its impact on the world and the byproducts that are resulting from its production or use? So, when you look over your shoulder, you see this almost disconnected approach to sustainability from companies — but, again, the Brundtland Report only came out in the 1980s, and that’s where I’m saying the conversation really began.

                        It was, as it went forward, now that you see BlackRock, you see Norges Bank, you see major retirement funds coming into the conversation and having questions during proxy season with publicly traded companies or on one-on-one dialogues or engagements, asking you about what you’re doing on human rights, what you’re doing about child labor, how many women are on your board, what is your program to advance and empower minorities, and this has become a mainstream conversation. It’s no longer limited. Internally, we, as a major corporation, had to get in time with that march from philanthropy to how you are as a sustainable company. The conversations over the years were not always easy, because when you go to your board of directors and you say, “It’s going to cost us an extra $14 million to do X, but it’s the right thing to do,” and you don’t have the bottom line for it, there’s a question.

                        Now, there are very enlightened companies and very enlightened people who could see the business-case and could move forward, and those are the leaders. The laggards are those who didn’t see the business-case, required far more evidence, et cetera. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but they just lag behind. They wanted to know the business-case more digitally, more fundamentally, and understand the total fiscal impact. Now that they can see it, and now that investors are valuing it, I think we’ve brought a lot more companies to the forefront.


David:            That’s exciting, and I’m sure it’s probably such a long process. Some days, it was very frustrating and felt like an uphill battle for all the various people that we’re working on in the company, and then you’d get a little wind and go forward like that. Were there any partners that Monsanto had along the way, nonprofit environmental organizations?

Brian:             We’ve had many partners over the years. It has oftentimes depended on the issue or the space, because we’re expert in what we do. We’re not the expert in what we don’t do, and we needed people to step in and help us, so we would reach out to them. When you’ve worked for a company as controversial as Monsanto, with some of the reputational challenges that we faced, it wasn’t always easy to find those partners, but I will tell you, it is far more beneficial and rewarding to come off of the mountaintops from which you’ve been screaming at each other, down to where they overlap, and find that common ground, and to make some progress.

                        That was really the approach I’ve used in my work in this space, which is, “I hear you, but I’m not sure you hear me,” or “I’m not sure I understand you. Maybe you understand me, so let’s go to a place where we can actually talk and respect the views we each have and see if there’s a space to go forward.” We have partnered with a number of civil society organizations, environmental organizations, human rights groups, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, faith-based investors. The doors are open, quite honestly, because we know we don’t have all the answers. We know that we need experts in those spaces, because that’s not what we do. It’s what they’re experts at, so help us move forward and we will help you as we contribute to the overall effort that they’re advancing themselves.


David:            Do you have a favorite story about one particular partnership like that, maybe, with an organization that was a detractor, and then you built a bond with them to work on a project?

Brian:             I’m not sure that I do have a favorite story from a detractor, although there is one that is pretty interesting. A number of years ago, I worked with a group called The Crucible Group to write a series of books on the patentability of genetic resources. It’s a big question. There are lots of things going on up in the world of intellectual property organization on this. There’s something going on through the United Nations’ Environmental Program on this, but this was an effort to write a treatise, if you would, for government officials as a backgrounder, because this is a tough topic, and the patentability and the rights of ownership on genetic resources is something most people do not walk around thinking about on a daily basis.


David:            Sure.

Brian:             There was a gentleman who I won’t name who was on this book with me. I was one of the only people from the private sector; everyone else came from civil society, indigenous people’s groups, and this gentleman was truly a detractor. He was not fond of the company, our products — had lots of questions about what we were doing — but he and I got along quite well because we were both there for the same reason: we were there to advance the understanding of the use of genetic resources and why it’s important, but how you balance the equities. Indigenous peoples have a lot of interest in the genetic resources that they’ve used for thousands of years, perhaps, and yet, companies come in, create a product using that genetic resource. What’s the benefit-sharing supposed to look like? Do you do something for that group of people from whom you’ve taken this resource?

                        He and I had differences of opinion, but at the end of it, he walked up to me and he said, “I’ll drink milk with you from a cow that’s been injected with recombinant bovine somatotropin because, after meeting you, I actually think it’s probably safe.”


David:            Wow. That’s pretty good development, one communicating one-on-one, one person at a time. How do we take that to the next level? You talked in the panel on Sunday about how the narrative around ag-tech is often scripted by the consumer. How do we tell our industry’s own story?

Brian:             Well, it’s great for industry to tell its story, but it’s very difficult to get consumers to listen to it. Industry often comes from a mercantile perspective. We are for-profit companies. That is what we do; that is our sustainability. Some would define sustainability for a farmer by having enough money in the bank at the end of the year to farm next year. When you’re coming at it from a mercantile perspective and that’s how you tell your story and that’s what you want to bring forward, you are inherently suspect. You’re doing this for your own good. There must be something else.

                        I would say that telling the story is important, but what’s more important is earning the public trust. You aren’t going to earn the public trust just by telling a good story. You’re going to earn the public trust by what you do and how you do it. I think being transparent, being collaborative, being communicative is really probably the foundation for getting the public to build their trust in the ag space, because agriculture is a group of practices and products, et cetera, that take management, that take work, that take people committed to it, and the whole food and ag chain requires it from start to finish, so it’s a huge undertaking with a huge impact, but it’s not a single story. So, if you can’t tell a single story because there are 17 steps, it gets quite difficult to keep consumers interested, to keep others interested, quite honestly, even if we work in the chain, because we’re at this end, you’re at that end. We don’t need to worry about this together — but we do need to worry about it together because I do think that the public trust is far more important than the public ag campaign.


David:            Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Brian. That was a great conversation, and I appreciate you spending some time with us.

Brian:             Sure. It was fun.

Agriculture has the power to solve some of our most challenging environmental problems. We can put carbon back in the soil and forests. We can recycle nutrients and keep them out of our rivers, lakes and oceans. We can generate renewable energy. And, together, we can build a more sustainable world.

by  | Sep 23, 2019 | Sustainable Agriculture