Visiting Monsanto

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.

Monsanto Vine via thefarmerslife.comOur 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?

Monsanto Greenhouses via thefarmerslife.comThe 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!
Monsanto Front Desk via thefarmerslife.com

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!

Research!

Monsanto Growth Chambers via thefarmerslife.comA 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.

Bt Testing via thefarmerslife.comThis 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!

LED Grow Light via thefarmerslife.comThe 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.

Plant History

Teosinte via thefarmerslife.comI 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

Monsanto Patents via thefarmerslife.comPlant 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.

Precision Tools

Water Jet via thefarmerslife.comWater 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

Chipped Seed via thefarmerslife.comThe 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?

 

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Comments

    1. I really liked that everyone in our group had a different background going in. Made for some really good conversation don’t you think?

  1. Great post, Brian! I visited a small Monsanto plant breeding farm in Maui but it was teeny tiny compared to this facility. I did learn about the chipper though, and how the Maui facility and others ship the seeds to the St Louis facility to be chipped and returned and by the time snail mail gets them back to their place of origin, the seeds with the desired traits are known. Apparently this system is more efficient and economical than having chippers in various facilities. Pretty neat stuff really!

  2. Did they show you where they throw the puppies into the wood chipper? Did you see the dungeon?

    I just laugh because I know people that work there and love it. Thanks for giving a glimpse behind the curtain.

  3. Remember when we ate those GMO blueberries and grew big, round and purple? They had to roll us around! Or that time I was trying to grab a few bucks from the money river and got sucked into the shill money pump? Oh those were fun times. That boat ride was kinda scary though.

    This was a fun trip and all the people I met were nice and awesome. Great post, thanks Brian!

  4. Great post! I WILL take a tour one of these days! I especially appreciate your explanation of how you use GMO seeds to reduce pesticides. Thanks for what you do!!

  5. Brian this is going in my “bucket list” definitely fantastic that one is able to visit innovators at work!
    Thanks for bringing the “dollars and sense” side of it as well!

  6. Brian thank you for your great blog! I found it last night while researching true info about Monsanto and GMOS. Having grown
    up on a family farm and worked for farmers for most of my adult life, particularly the last four years hauling grain, I am tired of the endless misinformation being posted on Facebook about Monsanto. If farmers can trust them the public shouldn’t be too worried. I don’t know anyone as skeptical about new technology as farmers lol!

  7. I got a quick question that maybe Brian can answer or Janice can answer. In 2006 Monsanto bought an independently owned seed company know as Gold Country Seeds. Prior to Monsanto purchasing that seed company, Gold Country was selling and just ready to market a variety of seed corn known 94-01 that was organic. Gold Country expanded this variety to organic because at the time the demand from organic farmers had grown enough to justify producing and selling this particular variety in organic. We were one them organic farmer customers who were all ready and had already put our order in for the organic seed that Gold Country was selling.

    Then in the late winter of 06 we found out that Monsanto had purchased Gold Country seeds. My uncle was a local seed dealer for Gold Country and received a letter from Monsanto saying that they would be discontinuing the organic line of this particular variety and all Gold country’s organic seed cor line.

    My question is why did they do this? Isn’t that limiting a farmers choice?

    The whole debacle created an inconvenience for us that year because at the last minute we had to find another source of organic seed corn.

    1. I’m sorry for the inconvenience and no doubt frustration caused by all of that. Our business wants to provide choices and this seems like something that may have been driven by some other consideration without the sensitivity for the farmers who were relying on that product.

      I was working in a cotton seed business that Monsanto purchased around the same time (summer 2007) and remember there was a lot of conversation between people running Monsanto’s cotton business and the new team coming in. There were choices that had to be made about what things were duplicated in large part with the I assume similar discussions were held with the Gold County team. Perhaps there was a thought that most of the customers for that variety would be well served by another one. I’m really not sure who led those decisions but I do regret the “debacle” that ensued and the problems that caused on your farm.

  8. I’m also curious as to what they did with all that Organic seedcorn that was produced in 2005? Did Monsanto destroy it? They could have at least given it to us at a discounted price if they didn’t want it.

  9. It would have been to Monsanto’s advantage to at least sell all that organic seed corn to everyone that had placed an order for it and they would have at least made some extra money on the deal. What I don’t understand is why would they take a loss on it. It doesn’t make any sense. It has baffled me to this day as to why they would do that.

  10. Yes, getting all the information one can acquire on the topic is always a good idea. Have you checked out the movies, “Food Inc.” or “Forks over Knives?” Also, did you that most of the corn that is grown is made into high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin which are directly linked to diabete and cancer? Did you know that the production of corn is subsidized by the US gov. which makes diabetes, in fact, a gov subsidized epidemic? Did you know that one in three Americans have, or soon will, diabetes? Let’s look at the much bigger picture here. The whole thing isn’t just about growing corn. The rich ARE getting richer and the poor are dying and uninformed. Just one man’s informed opinion.

  11. Hey, has anyone heard of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan? A once thriving fishing industry on OUR plnet’s fourth largest inland lake was destroyed by GMO cotton farming. The rates of death from cancer and respiratory problems is through the roof. It’s an interesting read.

  12. Brian. Respectfully, you are correct about most of the corn going toward the livestock industry (which is another alarming issue in it self). After reading my post I realized my mistake. thanks for the correction.

    As for the Aral Sea, I could post multiple links but the ones I would post would only make me look particularly biased. Which I will admit that am. I will simply ask that you do a Google search and make up your own mind after reading the abundantly tragic data.

    1. From the sources I can find, the Aral Sea was destroyed by general collectivised farming and other projects that the Soviet Union had in place. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do specifically with genetically modified crops and certainly nothing to do with Monsanto. It seems there were large scale health issues created by pesticides, but once again, that has no necessarily direct relationship to genetically modified agriculture or Monsanto. It really seems to me that large scale collectivised farming caused larger unregulated water usage and various water flow diversions were primarily to blame. I found a few sources suggesting that GM crops that require less water usage may actually be part of a solution if anything.

      Saying that GM crops are primarily to blame is a gross oversimplification of the issue and only diverts attention away from actual practical solutions. I’d love to see these sources and check how reliable they are.

  13. It’s been about a month and half since I posted my comment about Gold Country Seed & the organic seed corn issue.

    I’m stilling waiting for an answer as to what Monsanto did with all that organic seed corn & why they refused to sell it to my uncle & myself?

  14. No I haven’t contacted anyone directly from Gold Country. The only direct info I know the is the letter that my uncle recived directly from Monsanto informing us that they had acquired Gold Country seed & that they would be discontinuing all of Gold Country’s organic hybrid line of seed corn. There was no mention of what was done the organic seed corn or no offers to sell it to us. The District sales rep for Gold Country died about a year after my uncle received that letter and I guess i never got around to asking him before he passed away.

  15. The Chesterfield location is currently undergoing a major expansion. You should come visit again once it’s finished.

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