Early in September 2013 I was able to visit Monsanto‘s facilities in St. Louis, MIssouri. My wife and I along with two friends were on a road trip taking us from home in Indiana out to Kansas City and back through St. Louis to take in a couple of concerts. A friend I first encountered through social media a few years ago, Janice Person, works at Monsanto. I let her know we’d be in town and might have some time to stop in for a tour. All kinds of groups tour the facility, and since we were going to be in town I thought we could stop by on our way home.
Our little tour group was a bit diverse. I of course am a farmer who uses and is familiar with Monsanto products. My wife grew up in town and is learning more about farming all the time. Our friends are into gardening, and one of them happens to work at a plant where a good deal of our corn crop is delivered. We were also joined by Cathryn who works in St. Louis for National Corn Growers Association. She calls on me and other farmers several times a year for a podcast called Field Notes that features farmer reports of crop conditions from around the country. Rounding out the group was David who goes by @pythacrank on twitter. David is a vegan and spends a lot time seeking out the real deal on subjects like biotechnology. A few weeks after Monsanto he was actually able to come down from Chicago and spend a day with me in the combine harvesting popcorn.
What Did We See at Monsanto?
The first thing I noticed when we pulled up was the greenhouse arrangement. I was surprised to find the greenhouses up on the roof! It turns out Monsanto resides in a little valley which limits space somewhat so the greenhouses went up instead of out. Since we showed up at the gate with a big pickup truck pulling a 27′ camper Janice had kindly arranged to have 4 curbside parking spaces clear for me right at the front door. Security didn’t like that plan and we ended up parking out back in an empty lot and getting a ride back to the entrance. It was no big deal for us, but I think Janice might have pulled a few hairs out over it! Ha!
I have to admit that I kinda want to build a desk in our farm office filled with corn like this one that greets visitors just inside the front door. Agnerd alert!
After getting checked in we sat down for lunch in the cafeteria. The same cafeteria where people claim that Monsanto knows biotechnology is so bad for human health that it serves nothing but organic food to its employees. I don’t know where people get these silly ideas, but I was assured some of our food was at least cooked in GMO soybean oil. On to the tour!
A large portion of the buildings are occupied by growth chambers much like these. The environment of these chambers can be controlled to represent almost any condition the breeders and researchers was to simulate. Temperature, moisture, light, and about anything else can be regulated by each chamber. A recent addition to the growth chamber areas is lighting controlled by a motion detection system. The lights illuminating the halls around the chambers will turn off if nobody is moving around. Many of the lights were off during our visit, and they would light our path as we moved ahead. Our tour guide says the system seemed costly at first, but it ended up paying for itself in reduced energy costs in six months.
This chamber has several varieties of corn growing inside. The white box in the back contains corn rootworm beetles. The Bt corn in the chamber is being tested for its ability to prevent damage by the pests. Due to environmental conditions reducing pest populations the last few years, the effectiveness of Bt corn, and seed treatments, we stopped using soil applied insecticides on our farm two years ago when we bought a new planter. Previously we had been applying liquid insecticide at planting. For the last two years we’ve been saving about $4.50/acre on inputs and using less pesticide! Since our non-Bt crops haven’t been showing signs of economic damage form corn rootworm lately we are actually backing off on Bt rootworm control on half our dent corn acres for 2014 saving another $21/acre. Some argue GMO is all about money. Well sometimes not using GMO is about the money. Farmers have all kinds of choices when buying seed!
The soybeans in this chamber are growing under pink LED lights. This is another energy-saving technique. LEDs use much less energy than incandescent bulbs, and plants don’t necessarily need the light humans see. Much of what a plant does with sunlight operates outside our visible spectrum.
I know what teosinte is, but I had never seen a plant in person until I went to St. Louis. The plant on the left is teosinte, and the two plants in the black pots are modern corn plants. The corn most everyone is familiar with comes from thousands of years of breeding that all started with teosinte. Teosinte doesn’t put on ears of corn kernels like a corn plant, and it grows in a bunched fashion instead of a single stalk.
Plant patents are a hot topic in agriculture, and Monsanto usually ends up being part of the conversation. I just though I’d show everyone what I dubbed the “Hall of Patents” where each plaque represents a patent granted, what it’s for, and who was involved. Plant patents are common for all types of plants not just biotech. We were told Monsanto has been averaging about one per week. Conventional, organic, ornamental, cover crops, and more often have patents associated with them.
Water jets are really cool, and Monsanto has one in their basement machine shop. With all the reasearch and develop going on there Monsanto maintains and impressive array of machines and workers able to create pieces and parts for much of the equipment on campus. A water jet can take just about any material and fashion it into an endless variety of shapes using a stream of very high pressure water.
Chip Off the Old Seed
The seed chipper is a new tool Monsanto developed with some help from the machine shop. New varieties of crops can take several years to develop before they are ready for the market place. The seed chipper is able to remove a tiny portion of a seed while leaving the rest of the seed viable for growth. The genetics of a seed can be tracked via the chipped portion. So when a breeder is trying to reach a goal of having a plant with a certain set of characteristics they will know the genetic makeup of each plant they breed. Not every plant will develop with the desired traits coming out of the greenhouse or growth chamber. With genetics from each seed on hand via the chipped portion the next step in the process can commence without planting anything that doesn’t express the desired genotype. The process can take up to two years off the process of bringing a new variety to market! That’s a big deal in an industry where this normally takes 5 to 10 years. And FYI Monsanto found they are able to chip soybeans in the same place every time because if you let a soybean settle on a flat surface it will settle on the same side each time because they aren’t perfectly round. Yes I have tried this at home since my visit, and it works!
I’m glad I was able to spend a few hours at Monsanto before we headed for home. I wish we had more time and were able to see their other facility while we were in town. There is where work is done on crops that I’m not so familiar with growing such as vegetables. However, my friend Meg who blogs very transparently at The Beef Jar was able to take a day in her part of the country to check out what Monsanto is doing with tomatoes. Take a few moments to read her post “Field Trip: Monsanto and Tomatoes“. Most of the seeds Monsanto sells are not GMO, and as Meg says, “Doug is using genetic material that is over 60 years old along with some of the new great things he’s found! I think it is amazing that Doug and Monsanto are keeping these old genes alive and in production. Notice that is something you never hear about from the media. This germplasm dates back many decades and is responsible for long-time home garden favorites such as Better Boy, Big Boy, and Early Girl.”
Janice offers her story about working for Monsanto in her post called “Thoughts on How I Want to Tell My Story Even if the Prompt Isn’t Ideal.” Janice doesn’t shy away from her work, and is more than willing and open about telling people how things are over there. Monsanto gives tours to groups of all kinds regularly so don’t think the doors are only open to farmers/customers.
Rob is an organic farmer who blogs at the Fanning Mill. Be sure to check out his post “An Organic Farmer Walks Into Monsanto…” “When it comes to Monsanto and biotechnology in general, I’m going to recognize that there are issues that need to be addressed, particularly with respect to certain elements of the technology, certain applications of it, and the concentration of power and resources that often accompany it. But I’m not going to demonize the technology of any of the people or companies involved with it. I’m going to engage in respectful, informed discussions of these and related topics, but I’m not going to tolerate unscientific fear-mongering.”
Would you visit Monsanto or a similar facility if you had the chance?