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To grow food, pay attention to how nature does things

A new book outlines the soil-damaging mistakes of the seed giant Monsanto, and explores what they can teach about the future of food 

The products we design for future agricultural systems should not be based on finite resources—historian Bartow J. Elmore. (Markus Spiske, Unsplash)
The products we design for future agricultural systems should not be based on finite resources—historian Bartow J. Elmore. (Markus Spiske, Unsplash)

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Journalist Amanda Little: Global population growth and climate change have strained the world’s food supply and accelerated the race to develop new, more efficient ways of growing crops. Advances in genetic engineering, notably the genome editing technology known as CRISPR, have opened up food-production possibilities that were unimaginable just a few years ago. You’re the author of a new book, “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future.” In telling the history of Monsanto, the chemical giant that has long been at the forefront of genetically-modified agriculture, you make the case that we should proceed cautiously into this new era – we can’t move forward responsibly without looking back. Quick litmus test to begin with: What did you have for breakfast?

Bartow J. Elmore, author, “Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future”: Huevos rancheros, no meat. Not a vegan diet – I still eat eggs, but I’m trying to reduce the meat consumption as best I can these days.

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AL: The story of Monsanto has been told in the media for decades, mostly as a sordid tale. Why is this book important now?

BE: This year is the 25th anniversary of the first introduction of commodity crops genetically engineered by Monsanto. They came on the scene around 1996 and we now have 25 years of data to look back on. My question was: What can we say about the first phase of this deployment? I’m fascinated by Monsanto as a company that’s everywhere, but we don’t see it. It’s in the seeds and chemicals that grow the food we eat, but also in synthetic fibers in our clothes, the synthetic rubber in our shoes.

AL: Take us into your reporting process.

BE: My training is as a historian, so I started with archives and getting access to decades of documents and papers, but realized if I was going to tell the story right, I needed to get out of the archives. I started dialing phone numbers to see if I could get a hold of the highest people in the company. Sometimes they would talk, which was amazing. I traveled abroad — Brazil and Vietnam — to look at Monsanto’s impact overseas. I ended up spending a lot of time with lawyers and attending court proceedings. There were so many cases against Monsanto that I didn’t even see coming when I began my research: trials involving Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and litigation over damage caused by another product, dicamba. Journalist mentors took me under their wing and taught me techniques to get the stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten in the archives.

AL: The story was developing as you wrote. At its core, is this book trying to prove conclusively what many lawyers have failed to do in the courtroom — that Monsanto showed a willfully reckless attitude toward the safety of its workers and the public?

BE: When I started out, my intention was to begin with a clean slate, to see where the facts led. When I first started writing, my brother sent me a bumper sticker that said, “Monsatan,” so I was well aware of the public perception that this was an unethical firm, and I knew I was going to have to get beyond easy stereotypes What began to emerge was a story about how good people end up in positions where they create technologies that might have outsize influences on the environment that maybe they didn’t anticipate. I think former CEO Bob Shapiro is a great example of that. I don’t think it’s fair to say he was just out for profit; he was clearly inspired by these ideas of sustainability. So I try at times to tell those human stories.

But I also felt an obligation to ask, What did they know about the toxic compounds they sold and when did they know it? And I did see what I thought were unethical choices.


The cover of the book, Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future
The cover of the book, Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future

AL: What choices concerned you most?

BE: I was really struck, for example, by an internal document where the company’s executives were debating what to do about PCBs, toxic compounds that were some of Monsanto’s most profitable products. In that document, they literally wrote, “Sell the hell out of them as long as we possibly can.” I was also struck by the treatment of workers at their facility in Nitro, West Virginia, that produced the Agent Orange that was used in Vietnam.

In one case, a worker’s face was being peeled off layer upon layer because he had such reactions to being exposed to this chemical. Monsanto was even paying bonuses to the workers just to get them to work with 2,4,5-T, the active ingredient in Agent Orange. This was in the 1940s and 1950s, long before American soldiers and Vietnamese citizens would be exposed to this stuff. Meanwhile, you see internal documents in 1965 where Dow is writing to Monsanto saying, “Guys, this is some of the most toxic stuff we’ve ever seen.” Again, the company would keep selling this to the U.S. military despite what they knew internally.

AL: You show us that even as the EPA cracked down on Superfund sites and big polluters, it continued to allow Monsanto to expand. How did Monsanto manage to dodge regulatory oversight?

BE: Time and time again, scientific studies on their chemical products were funded by Monsanto or even run by Monsanto – studies that were used as primary evidence to legitimate the use of these chemicals. It was the fox watching the henhouse. The message is clear: We need a firmer divide between the science that’s being used to decide what the regulations are and the people that are being regulated.

AL: How cooperative was Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, in your research process?

BE: A lot of Monsanto employees really believe in what they’re doing. And so, there was a sense of openness from some people, like, “Let me tell you my story because I actually think what I’m doing is right.” I get it. I’m a person who studied biochemistry and I get that feeling of, hey, we can use this technology to make a difference.

AL: For all of its impacts on the environment and human health, what do you think are the benefits of Monsanto’s work over these decades?

BE: It’s easy to say, “Monsanto’s so evil. I don’t want anything to do with them.” Well, that’s impossible. The entire modern economy, you could argue, is made up of the synthetic products born of the chemical age. We all depend on these products. They made things easy, very cheap and accessible. They allow a much larger number of people to have certain amenities. I’m looking around the room right now and I literally cannot see anything in here that doesn’t come from petrochemical feedstocks in some form or fashion.

AL: Including your body.

BE: Including my body and the food that we eat. Interestingly, it was the energy crisis in the 1970s that pushed Monsanto to go into the seed business. They needed to get away from their dependency on petrochemicals because 80 percent of what they were making was coming from fossil fuels. By going into agricultural biotechnology they were trying to escape the fossil fuel economy in a way. But they never fully did. And neither did we.

AL: Do you think the rising cost of petrochemical feedstocks derived from oil and natural gas will transform the chemical industry going forward?

BE: Because of fracking and new technologies that have enabled access to cheap oil and natural gas, chemical producers are not yet feeling those pressures. In fact, we’re seeing a massive expansion of petrochemical plants right now. They’re probably going to become one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases as we close down a lot of these coal-powered plants.

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AL: Ultimately, neither the EPA, nor the court system, but nature itself has posed the biggest challenges to Monsanto. Its major herbicides have been getting less and less effective as weeds, which are like evolutionary ninjas, have developed resistance. Can you comment on this phenomenon of nature fighting back?

BE: Monsanto marketed its Roundup Ready crop system as incapable of producing weeds that would become resistant to its blockbuster herbicide Roundup, but within two to three years we started seeing the first cases of weeds developing resistance to this chemical. Weeds reproduce and adapt incredibly quickly. Yet Monsanto was writing journal articles at the time saying, “Roundup’s different. Weeds will not develop resistance to this.” It’s hard to understand how they could argue that because just a few years after Roundup Ready crops were first sold, weed resistance problems just exploded. In a way, this has presented a business opportunity for Monsanto. They’ve brought back dicamba and other highly potent herbicides and designed seeds resistant to those herbicides. As nature fights back, they create new seeds that now help crops tolerate multiple herbicides. It’s almost like the iPhone. You need the iPhone 10. Now you need the iPhone 11. Now you need the iPhone 12. Monsanto is a really good problem-seller.

AL: Can you take us through the escalating human health impacts of Monsanto’s herbicide products?

BE: There’s a graph in the book that tracks the resurgence of all these post-World War II-era chemicals, including dicamba and 2 4-D, which is now coming back into play. These chemicals came out of war, the mindset of war. In this sense, the future of food is the technologies of the past. It’s not just the problems posed by individual chemicals, which are linked to various cancers and have all sorts of systemic effects on the body, but often the interactions between the chemicals that is most problematic. We don’t yet know what it will look like, but it is harrowing.

AL: At the same time, we’re also seeing a lot of great ideas from the past re-emerge. Agro-ecology and regenerative farming are getting a lot more attention and becoming more prevalent today. What is the future of farming to your mind?

BE: I think it’s a combination of technology and biomimicry, as you argue in your book, “The Fate of Food.” There’s lots of exciting technological progress on the horizon, from hydroponics to nanotechnologies that might help micro-organisms fix nitrogen in the soil. But I still think that if there’s one guiding principle, it should be biomimicry: If you’re going to engineer agricultural technologies, pay attention to how nature does things. We’ve seen nature sustain life on this planet for billions of years. And it’s pretty remarkable stuff. The war-on-nature model must be a thing of the past.

AL: What do you think are the most virtuous or beneficial applications of genetic engineering and CRISPR?

BE: I’m excited about the relative low cost of the deployment of CRISPR technology, which may mean more people in the room developing better and more useful open-source applications. The potential to engineer drought resistance in crops is fascinating and maybe CRISPR will have some real breakthroughs there. But I’m only cautiously optimistic. Right now I hear a lot of overpromising and irrational exuberance, just as we heard at the beginning of the “digital revolution” back in the 1990s.

AL: With that in mind, what are the most important lessons of the past that we need to take with us as we enter into the agricultural future?

BE: Cheap isn’t always good. That is clear when you look at the whole agricultural system based on cheap petrochemical feedstocks. I call it “scavenger capitalism.” Going forward, the products we design for future agricultural systems should not be based on finite resources. We can’t fall into that same trap.

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