The world’s most vilified company—now a takeover target—has a plan to feed us all. Will it work?
All it took was the barnacle geese.
In July 2008 the National Geographic Society and other groups invited a few dozen corporate chieftains, world leaders, and scientists on a private boat trip to the Arctic. Among the passengers were Google (GOOGL) co-founder Larry Page, former eBay (and now HP Enterprise) CEO Meg Whitman, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Former President Jimmy Carter was there, too, as was CNN’s billionaire founder Ted Turner. Every day the passengers braved the waters in Zodiac inflatables to examine the flora, fauna, and melting ice pack. When they arrived at the Svalbard archipelago, a few members of the group jumped into the frigid sea. “Just the idiots did,” says Hugh Grant, chairman and CEO of the agricultural giant Monsanto (No. 189 on the Fortune 500), who was among those who took the plunge.
There, between Norway and the North Pole, Grant saw legions of black-and-white barnacle geese, which arrive like clockwork in May after wintering in Scotland, Grant’s native land. The geese normally synchronize their appearance in Svalbard with the melting snow and the blooming of grass, which they feast on after the long journey. But in recent years, as the Arctic temperature has warmed, the timing of the first bloom of grass has become erratic, limiting the birds’ food supply.
Grant, now 58, is a man who favors hard data and statistical rigor, and who studied entomology and molecular biology as an undergraduate before getting a master’s degree in agricultural science. But a flurry of academic reports on rising ocean temperatures paled in comparison to seeing the barnacle geese up close. “It was clear without a kilogram of scientific papers that something was happening,” Grant says.
Shortly after that excursion, the company Grant leads joined the chorus of other Fortune 500 companies robustly warning about the dangers of climate change—rhetoric that ultimately resulted in a pledge by Monsanto (MON) last year to become carbon neutral by 2021. It should not have been all that surprising that a company whose $15 billion in annual revenues come from getting the earth to grow stuff would be concerned about the changing climate of said earth. But critics—of which Monsanto has many—seized on its new initiatives as more evidence of the company’s diabolical moneymaking strategy.
Environmentalists, masses of whom rail against Monsanto’s production of genetically modified seed (it is the world’s largest seller), called the company’s pledge to become carbon neutral “greenwashing”—an attempt to distract consumers from what they viewed as Monsanto’s ongoing poisoning of the planet. Even many Cornbelt farmers—some of the seedmaker’s oldest customers—lashed out, accusing it of giving in to government and activist pressures by embracing the notion that climate change was even partly man-made. Promising to do something as seemingly benevolent as reduce its greenhouse gas emissions had somehow managed to piss everybody off—which, for the Creve Coeur, Mo., company, was business as usual.
Let us say it plainly: Monsanto is almost surely the most vilified company on the planet. To its diehard critics it embodies all that is wrong with big, industrial agriculture—the corporatization of farming, the decline of smallholders, the excessive use of chemicals, a lack of transparency, and, of course, the big one: the entry of genetically modified organisms into our food supply. The tri-letter acronym GMO has become a four-letter word to millions of people, from earnest middle-schoolers to purist Whole Foods shoppers. In previous decades and in previous corporate iterations, Monsanto (then a mere chemical company) produced Agent Orange, the powerful defoliant used during the Vietnam War, which was later blamed for causing cancer and other diseases to those exposed. It (and others) made the now-banned pesticide DDT—as well as PCBs, omnipresent toxic compounds that have been disastrous for the environment.
The demonizing of the company has played out in dark and sometimes comedic ways. It’s the subject of at least a half-dozen documentaries, with titles ranging from Seeding Fear to Seeds of Death. It’s at the center of several bizarre conspiracy theories: that it bought private military company Blackwater; that, as it plies the rest of the world with GMOs, it serves only organic food in its headquarters’ cafeteria; that the company and its “biotech mafia” henchmen caused Chipotle’s (CMG) food-safety crisis through sabotage; and that Monsanto, rather than the Zika virus, is responsible for microcephaly. (Just for the record, Monsanto denies all of this.) “I don’t think it’s possible for people to feel antagonized by Monsanto more than they already do,” says CLSA Americas analyst Mark Connelly, who has covered the company—and the craziness surrounding it—for the past 15 years.
Which brings us to a provocative question: Is it conceivable that the planet’s most vilified company could be the one that feeds it?
That, in short, is precisely what Monsanto hopes it can do. “They believe they’re feeding the world, and there’s no other good way,” Connelly says. “Confidence that they’re doing the right thing has blinded them to the fact that they need to be out there defending it.”
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must double the current level of food production to adequately feed a population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050—and we’ll have to do it on less land (much of it scarce of water), using fewer resources. And we’ll have to do it as climate change rewrites the weather rules around the globe—and as ever more of that population achieves middle-class status and wants to eat accordingly. “That equation needs to be solved, and the time scale on that is a handful of generations,” says Grant.
A NASA researcher now predicts that this year will be the hottest on record—the third record-setting year in a row. Depending on where they are in the world, farmers will increasingly wrestle with either intense rainfall or ongoing drought, and the respective pests and pathogens that come with them. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that changes in climate are already slowing the average growth rate for crop yields by up to 2.5% per decade globally. And in some parts of the world the urgency has already reached a fever pitch. Swaths of Africa, for example, are facing a severe food crisis. “It’s going to require an incredible leap in productivity,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack tells Fortune. Even America, the breadbasket for the world, will have trouble keeping pace. During Vilsack’s lifetime, the U.S. increased production by 170% on 26% less farmland. “More advanced agriculture economies aren’t going to be able to make that kind of leap in the next 25 years,” he says.
Unless something big changes.
Historically, Monsanto has tried to increase farm yields through advancements in seed technology alone. Grant calls this “hubris”: “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we thought biotech was going to be the panacea.” In the past half-decade the company has begun to look beyond seed for answers. That has led Monsanto to a string of deals. In 2013 it bought weather-data startup Climate Corp. for $930 million (more on that in a bit). That same year it partnered with Danish company Novozymes, hoping to find ways to boost crop yields by harnessing plant microbiomes—the microorganisms that live within and on them. And last year, to shore up its own agrichemical business, it attempted to buy competitor Syngenta—but that deal was rebuffed. (Syngenta has agreed to be acquired by Chinese-government-owned ChemChina.)
Now Monsanto itself is in play. Bayer, the German pharma and chemical giant, made a $62 billion all-cash offer for the company in May. At the time of publication, Monsanto had rejected the bid as “incomplete and financially inadequate,” though indicated it was open to further discussion. Whether that deal goes through or not, however, Monsanto will not be the same entity in a decade that it is today. The company that was founded in 1901 as a chemical maker, then turned itself into a biotech company, and finally became a seed company is metamorphosing anew: this time, into a data company. Explains Grant: “Ultimately data science becomes the glue, the catalyst, that holds the chemistry and biology together.”
Erik Andrejko, who runs Monsanto’s data science center, frames the company’s new mission more succinctly: “Feeding the world through math.”
This past December David Hula of Charles City, Va., won the National Corn Growers Association’s annual yield contest by squeezing 532 bushels of corn out of a single acre—a world record that trounced the 2015 U.S. national average by a factor of more than three. Hula, notably, had used seed from DuPont’s Pioneer—one of Monsanto’s biggest competitors in the business. But the contest was about more than just bragging rights. It was a testament to the changing hegemony in agricultural science: Even for Monsanto, it wasn’t just about the seed anymore.
Hula had to get everything smack-dab perfect to reach that prize-winning yield: planting his rows the right distance apart, treating the soil with the precise microbes needed to keep it healthy, applying the ideal amount of nitrogen fertilizer at the ideal moment. Farmers make some 40 decisions like these each season—decisions that were once made largely by tradition and training, but which are now reached increasingly with the help of data. Previously Monsanto’s businesses dealt with only a handful of those variables. Two-thirds of the company’s $15 billion in revenue is generated from selling seeds and genetically engineered traits such as insect resistance. The remaining third of revenues has come from selling products such as herbicides, primarily Roundup.
Breeding better seed has contributed to a more than 1% annual increase in corn yields, experts say. Biologists, for instance, have created corn plants that can be clustered closer together, meaning there can be more stalks per acre. Still, that yearly growth rate would leave the U.S. average below 200 bushels by the end of the decade—far from Hula’s corn bonanza and nowhere near enough to feed the planet.
That realization led Monsanto to Climate Corp. Despite its name, the San Francisco startup is not just a weather-data company but also an algorithm builder, working to figure out how genetics, farmer practices, and the environment—what Grant calls “that ghastly, uncontrollable variable”—fit together. The hope is that all of these shards of information can produce what most “big data” efforts rarely do: knowledge one can act on. The goal of Climate Corp. was not to tell farmers they should expect a wet spring, but rather to advise them on how much nitrogen fertilizer to apply in a wet spring on a particular square meter of land, based on how they tilled their soil.
With Climate Corp.’s algorithms—which are based on the analysis of satellite data, weather, field trials, farmer inputs, soil maps, and yield data from millions of acres of U.S. farmland—Monsanto suddenly had a new set of problem-solving tools.
When Monsanto approached Climate Corp.’s founder David Friedberg with an offer to buy his then-seven-year-old company, Friedberg, a former Google (GOOGL) employee and lifelong vegetarian, was at first a bit wary. After the acquisition was announced, he wrote a letter to employees acknowledging that many could expect to get emails from family and recruiters with the subject line: “Do you REALLY want to work at the MOST EVIL COMPANY IN THE WORLD??!!” (He had received a similar comment from his dad.) But Friedberg—who stepped aside as CEO in January and remains a senior adviser—believed that combining Monsanto’s expertise in plant biology with Climate Corp.’s broader data analysis would actually do good in the world. It would also vastly expand Monsanto’s potential market.
Consider the company’s seed business. Monsanto sells not only its own seeds, genetically modified and otherwise, but also licenses its genetic technology (such as traits that, say, give cotton plants resistance to weed killers) to rival seedmakers. Combined, those seeds now fill some 400 million acres around the globe. That’s a fraction of the nearly 4 billion acres of land the UN estimates is being cultivated. Climate Corp.’s chief technology officer Mark Young doubts that that Monsanto could ever get to a billion-acre footprint just by being a seed company, “but as a decision-based company, it seems to have a really good shot.” Monsanto, for example, doesn’t sell grape seeds, but it could some day advise grape growers on how to increase their yields.
Monsanto, in truth, doesn’t have much choice but to change. Over the past three years (before Bayer’s bid was announced in May), the stock had fallen more than 6%, compared with a 23% gain for the S&P 500. Even with the post-Bayer-bid bump, Monsanto’s share price of $110 is still off 13% from its June 2014 high. Record harvests have led to low commodity prices, eating into farmers’ incomes and their willingness to open their wallets—a factor that has forced Monsanto to cut its guidance for fiscal 2016. Monsanto isn’t suffering alone. The agricultural industry, as a whole, is lagging—which has led to reshuffling and consolidation, including the pending merger of Dow (DOW) and DuPont (DD).
In terms of revenue, Monsanto’s big-data forays have been insignificant so far, yet they offer the best opportunity for planet-feeding growth, many believe. But then, there’s that familiar problem for the company: suspicion of its motives, a reputational blight it can’t seem to shake. “They will use a lot of that information to develop more efficient technologies,” says Paul Thompson, a professor of philosophy, specializing in food, at Michigan State University, “but I do think it’s something of a worry to see all of that information in the hands of a single actor.”
Consider the tale of the honeybees.
In 2011, Monsanto acquired a startup called Beeologics. That company was trying to protect bees against Israeli acute paralysis virus, which is associated with the collapse of bee colonies. Beeologics was pursuing a possible solution through a technology called RNA interference (RNAi), which allows researchers to suppress the expression of specific genes, a method by which Beeologics hoped to destroy the virus but leave the bees unharmed. Monsanto wasn’t so much interested in the bees as it was in the RNAi technology, a tool it hoped to harness in creating corn that was resistant to rootworm and other pests. Nonetheless, Monsanto kept trying to work on the honeybees, dedicating $1 million to it annually.
When the Beeologics deal became public, angry chatter buzzed across the Internet. Some claimed that Monsanto bought the startup to distract from the role of pesticides in the collapse of bee colonies. Headlines included BEE-KILLING PESTICIDE COMPANIES ARE PRETENDING TO SAVE BEES and THE FOX (MONSANTO) BUYS THE CHICKEN COOP (BEEOLOGICS). (While Monsanto didn’t produce any of the insecticides in question, it does treat some of its seed with it.)
That kind of response gave pause to Jerry Hayes, then the chief apiary inspector with Florida’s Department of Agriculture, when Monsanto asked him to run its honeybee health efforts in 2012. “It took me two to three months to decide because everyone hates Monsanto,” he says. “I had the same impression.” Soon after joining the company Hayes was presented with a replica of Darth Vader’s lightsaber at an industry meeting.
If Monsanto represents the dark side, it’s hard to find any Sith Lords on the company’s lush, suburban St. Louis campus. Grant— a jovial fellow who describes himself as a “Scottish optimist, which is a really rare condition”—is altogether mild. The 35-year veteran of the company (Grant became CEO in 2003) has a passion for orchids—a love he acquired during a four-year stint in Singapore—and spends most spring weekends at home tending to his vegetable garden. He is 6 feet tall and bearlike in stature, a physique he is quick to quip about: “You don’t get to look like this if you’re not very careful.”
In April, Grant and I are at the company’s hive. Even in a beekeeper’s suit the Scotsman looks somewhat gentle. Hayes spots the queen and points her out to his boss, who seems as excited as a schoolboy: “That was supercool. That made my day.”
In theory RNAi might help save the honeybees, just as other technology will almost certainly increase food yields around the planet. But that does not mean either will be welcomed. Many scientists and plant biologists express a sense of frustration that consumers have embraced technology in so many parts of their lives but have rejected it out of hand when it comes to food. “I’ve never yet heard anybody go into a doctor’s office and say they want the same 1950s medicine as Grandma and Grandpa,” says Monsanto chief technology officer Robb Fraley, “but yet for some reason there’s a precondition to believe that was a better way to farm.”
For the deepest skeptics of GMOs, it seems that the science is beside the point. In May the National Academy of Sciences released an exhaustive report two years in the making. The NAS found no evidence that there would be a higher risk to human health from eating genetically engineered foods than from eating their non-genetically-engineered equivalents. Still, many GMO critics don’t believe it. Nor do they take at face value Monsanto’s “feed-the-world” argument, contending that it’s merely a strategy for creating a sense of crisis that will let them push through a pro-GMO agenda. “It’s a little overstated,” says MSU professor Thompson, referring to the food-demand estimates. “They are based on very highly aggregated figures that don’t take into consideration the fact that a lot of production is going for fuel or animal feed.”
The weather phenomenon known as El Niño has been stronger this year than it has been in decades. The Cornbelt has just experienced its warmest and wettest winter since temperatures were first recorded in 1895. El Niño’s jet streams pushed temperatures east of the Rocky Mountains 3° to 10° higher than normal, and the winter’s record rains led to a depletion in nitrogen fertilizer in the soil. A small fraction of that nitrogen is released into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has some 300 times the impact of carbon dioxide in terms of warming the atmosphere. When not absorbed by the soil, nitrogen can leach into waterways and contribute to the creation of hypoxic areas, like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Heepke brothers—Ross, Dennis, and Jeff—who farm 4,500 acres of soybeans, corn, and horseradish in and around Madison County, Ill., pay for a service from Monsanto’s Climate Corp. called Nitrogen Advisor. (Monsanto does not sell the fertilizer itself.) In April the proprietary algorithm crunched reams of data from the Heepkes’ fields to determine their level of nitrogen. When Ross logged in to check one of their cornfields, the service noted they were about 40 units short of nitrogen.
What the monitor didn’t say—or couldn’t say—was that this bit of knowledge posed a challenge not just for the Heepkes but also for Monsanto. As important as the data was, the financial consideration it raised was more so. With corn, then at the low price of about $3.50 a bushel, it was doubtful that the Heepkes would make up the money they would spend on an extra application of fertilizer. “Economics will trump agronomics all the time,” says Jeff.
Such uncertainties in the business model have prompted BMO Capital Markets analyst Joel Jackson to write that Monsanto’s big-data push “will be a home run or a rounding error.” If agricultural prices stay this low for long, it will almost certainly be the latter. For now, Monsanto seems willing to wait it out.
Breeding traditional hybrid seeds takes seven years, which, Grant told the crowd at Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference, is about the fastest thing Monsanto does. Agriculture does not happen season by season, says Connelly, but rather generation by generation. Monsanto, now in its second century, has made a practice out of exploiting that time line. “I don’t know any company that thinks longer term,” Connelly says.
And arguably, Monsanto is applying that same far-horizon outlook to its investment in Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., startup whose own business mission would seem to be the opposite of Monsanto’s: Blue River is trying to reduce the use of chemicals that Monsanto and other ag companies sell. The standard practice in weed or pest management is to spray an entire field when you have a problem. Ben Chostner, Blue River’s vice president of business development, equates this to giving everyone in New York an aspirin when 10 people have a headache. Rather than treat an entire field uniformly, Blue River’s planter-size sensing machines spray herbicide to just the spot where it’s needed. The devices—which distinguish between weeds and plants based on their size, shape, and color as they drive over fields—can reduce chemical use by a factor of 10.
“Chemicals have a place in agriculture,” says the company’s founder and CEO Jorge Heraud, “but they’re a tool that has been overused.” And as with many things that have been overused, there have been unintended consequences—one of which Heraud points out is the development of weeds that are resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup. Monsanto transformed the industry when it introduced Roundup Ready plants to the market 20 years ago. The plants were genetically engineered to resist the herbicide so farmers could spray entire fields and only the weeds would die, not the crop. The result, Heraud says, is the overreliance on a single method and single solution—in large part because it has been so effective. Environmental groups and European regulators continue to question the safety of Roundup. (Monsanto stands by the product’s safety.)
The premise of Blue River is a big shift in agricultural practices. Most advances are based on the concept of applying more stuff—herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers—to get more yield. Blue River’s aim is to apply less. Increasingly, Monsanto seems to be following the same playbook. Indeed, the big surprise is that big data is slowly shifting the company from a product maker to a service provider: “seed as a service,” if you will. This transformation will be trickier to accomplish if Monsanto ends up with a broader portfolio of chemicals—through a Bayer deal or otherwise. But even in such case, Grant insists the company can do a better job pinpointing their application. “There’s an opportunity in being much more precise on how we apply chemistry, when we apply it, and what chemistry we select,” he says. He’s betting that farmers will see the value in that and be willing to pay for it.
In early March, on the first afternoon I sat down with Grant in his office at Monsanto headquarters, the company had announced that morning that it had revised its earnings projection for the year. “It’s kind of interesting having this conversation on a day you take your guidance down,” he tells me. Monsanto highlighted lower crop prices as a factor. That, however, is the irony of farming. The more growers produce, the more they are punished by low prices—making them a victim of their own success.
When I offer up this characterization—farming as an insoluble business puzzle—to the CEO, he is quick to dismiss the notion in his thick Scottish brogue. “I’ve never bought into that,” Grant says, “because if you take the long view, I worry a lot more about being short in supply than being in excess.” Despite record harvests, corn consumption is expected to climb to its own stupefying height: more than 1 billion metric tons this year—a record. “The pantry is pretty full at the moment,” he says, “but it can change so fast.”
A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Can Monsanto Save the Planet?”