It was 5:30am and I had only consumed 1 cup of coffee, but the irony was so strong that even in my fuzzy-minded state I laughed out loud. I was in the back of a taxi heading to the airport to fly off to a two day conference that was covering what agriculture needed to do in order to feed the nine billion people that are expected to live on earth by the year 2050. The meeting was being held to discuss how agriculture can better explain to the non-farm public the need for technological innovation in food production in order to meet increasing demand for food. When I explained this to the cab driver in response to his question where my trip was taking me, his response was, “Oh. like Monsanto.” “Yes,” I answered. He then confidently stated, “It is really a shame what Monsanto has done to farmers.”
The rest of the way to the terminal I wrestled with how to respond to this statement. Should I tell him that he was wrong and should stop reading all those anti-Monsanto rants on social media. Had I had more coffee or if it had been a bit later in the morning, I might have been up to the challenge, but instead I said nothing deciding that, while he was misinformed, in the end he really did not care about Monsanto or the state of the world’s food supply. But over the next two days as I listened to experts talk about the need for innovation and communication, his comment kept echoing in my head.
For many, the name Monsanto has become synonymous with biotechnology and big corporate agriculture. While the St. Louis-based company was a pioneer in the development of biotechnology, they are not the only leader in biotechnology or the biggest. Other names that consumers know well such as Dow, DuPont, Bayer, and BASF are also leaders in biotechnology and agricultural innovation. Most consumers are also not aware that the innovations developed by these companies have resulted in a wide variety of products that fill their medicine cabinets, cleaning supply closets, refrigerators, workshops, and pantries. It is also a curious quirk of logic that innovation and technology is accepted when it results in a new medicine, household cleaner, or mobile phone, but not accepted when it provides safer and more abundant food. The same people who charge Monsanto with corporate greed and market monopoly, also carry iPhones, produced by Apple, one of the wealthiest and most market-dominating corporations on the planet.
But, back to my cab driver’s observation. From a farmer’s prospective, Monsanto has provided him with a long line of innovative products that has increased his per acre yield, reduced his cost of production, and allowed him to farm in a more environmentally sustainable way. This assessment stands in stark contrast to the impression most consumers have and to the image painted by those activist groups who oppose biotechnology. The invention of glyphosate, better known to consumers as Roundup, single-handedly changed row crop agriculture more than almost any innovation since the plow. Since then, a variety of seed traits and new chemistry has allowed farmers to increase crop production and reduce the amount of chemicals used in row crop production. These advances have also allowed farmers to adopt no till or minimum tillage techniques that help conserve soil and benefit the environment.
This is what has been lacking in the discussion about biotechnology. The benefits are obvious to those who use the innovations; but, for those far removed from food production, the benefits are not so obvious. It is truth that can be backed up with facts. Americans today are eating better, safer, and with more food security because of biotechnology than they would have if the Monsanto scientists had not gone into the lab.
In a final bit of irony, the success and growth of Monsanto would not have been possible without another well-known consumer brand that can be found in almost every household. In 1903, a struggling Georgia-based startup company bought the entire supply of a new Monsanto-developed sweetener. This innovation helped this start up company develop a product that is now one of the best known and consumed products in the world. While it was not made with biotechnology, Monsanto’s first innovation made Coke possible.
By Gary Truitt