Drake Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.
By Drake Bennett – July 03, 2014 Photographs by Daniel Shea for Bloomberg BusinessWeek
Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer
The 4,400 acres Dustin Spears farms with his father-in-law stretch for 50 miles across northern Illinois in an archipelago of disconnected, mostly rented plots. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a race to get the corn in the ground in time to take advantage of the full growing season. When spring is unusually cold and rainy, as it was this year, the window narrows even more.
Which is why Spears is in his tractor at two in the morning the first Monday in May, moving at 8 miles per hour through a halogen-lit haze of stirred-up topsoil. On the 60-foot planter behind him, a $47,000 sensor array helps deposit each corn kernel at a depth of 2 inches, no matter how hard or soft the soil. A computer in the cab calculates the fertility of different parts of the field and adjusts the planter accordingly. The seeds themselves are a new hybrid with a candy-green coating containing insecticides and fungicides. DNA inserted into the seeds produces a protein that kills pests such as corn borers, earworms, and rootworms. Other spliced-in genes confer immunity to the weed killers Spears uses, greatly simplifying his spraying schedule.
The 32-year-old farmer sits in the bouncing tractor cab, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a baseball cap, jeans, a Bluetooth headset, and a look of fatigue. The steering wheel is folded up out of the way. When the tractor nears the end of a row, its autopilot beeps cheerfully, and he taps a square on one of the touchscreens to his right. The tractor executes a turn, and he goes back to surfing the Web, watching streaming videos, or checking the latest corn prices. “You see how boring this gets?” Spears asks. “I’ll be listening to music for 12 hours. I’ll refresh my Twitter timeline, like, a hundred thousand times during the day.”
Spears is an early adopter who upgrades his equipment every 12 months (next year’s tractor will have a fridge in the cab, he says) and who just bought a drone to monitor his fields. He can afford to: Corn prices are high, and farmers like him can take home hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Still, he thinks such technologies—the smart planter software and sensor array, the iPad app offering planting and growing advice—are only going to get more common. So does the company that makes many of those tools, as well as the high-tech seeds Spears is planting: Monsanto (MON), one of the most hated corporations in America.
In a Harris Poll this year measuring the “reputation quotient” of major companies, Monsanto ranked third-lowest, above BP (BP) and Bank of America (BAC) and just behind Halliburton (HAL). For much of its history it was a chemical company, producing compounds used in electrical equipment, adhesives, plastics, and paint. Some of those chemicals—DDT, Agent Orange, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—have had long and controversial after-lives. The company is best known, however, as the face of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
On May 24, cities worldwide saw the second annual “March Against Monsanto.” In New York City, a couple thousand protesters gathered in Union Square, next to a farmers’ market, to hear speakers charge that the company was fighting efforts in states all over the country to mandate the labeling of GM foods; that organic crops were being polluted by GM pollen blown in on the wind, only for Monsanto to sue the organic farmers for intellectual-property theft; that Monsanto had developed a “Terminator” gene that made crops sterile. Some of the protesters were dressed as bees—studies have found a connection between the colony collapse die-off of honeybees and a common class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. (Monsanto does not make neonicotinoids, but it does incorporate them into some of its seed treatments.)
The company’s name has become shorthand for corporate villainy, like Standard Oil a century ago or the private military contractor Blackwater. A rumor persists that Blackwater, whose own reputation problems have led it to change its name multiple times, has merged with Monsanto. At the New York march, one young man held a sign that read, “Why buy Blackwater if your goal is to feed the world?”