Q: Tell me about Monsanto’s financial position, since the company announced last month the elimination of 2,600 jobs and a 26 percent drop in share prices this year.
A: We had a tough year for largely the same reasons that farmers had a tough year. Grain prices have fallen, and on top of that we’ve seen a bit of a contraction in planted acres, both in the U.S. and around the world. Plus the U.S. dollar has been very strong. Like all good companies in the middle of times like this, we’re resetting our cost structure so that as we move forward, we can make the right investment decisions and be in a position where we’ve got momentum once the ag cycle turns.
Q: Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Monsanto putting Roundup Ready seeds on the market, yet genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to raise consumer concerns about health and environmental effects. How do you evaluate the pluses and minuses of the technology?
A: When we first developed the methods to put new genes into crops in the 1980s, I could have never envisioned the success that the technology would have. Today, GMO crops are grown in just about 30 countries on about 25 percent of the world’s farmland. They’ve been the fastest adopted tool in the history of agriculture. Here in the U.S., probably 95 percent of the corn, soybean, cotton and sugar beet farmers use biotechnology because it helps them grow better crops and reduce their inputs. In the 20 years these products have been used commercially, there has not been a single food or feed safety problem associated with them. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have believed in 1980 that we’d still be talking about GMO crops and still having some of the controversies that we face today. That’s one reason why we have really changed our communications approach to reach out to the consumer to explain the importance of innovation in agriculture and the food supply, and to build understanding and trust.
Q: What about the fact that certain weeds have become resistant to products like Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate?
A: Roundup was discovered in the 1970s, and today in this country there’s probably less than a dozen weeds that have become resistant. As far as the resistant weeds, science has enabled us to develop better management practices for farmers. We’re giving them specific recommendations on which products to use, and how to use them in combinations, and we’re discovering new products.
Q: What do you make of the fact that earlier this year the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared glyphosate a probable human carcinogen?
A: It’s extremely unfortunate. Three other groups within WHO have reviewed glyphosate and concluded that it’s not a carcinogen at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Roundup the highest level of safety ranking that any agricultural or chemical product gets. EPA has just concluded an updated review and we expect them to release their findings shortly. The European Food Safety Authority took four years to review the safety of the molecule, and found that there’s no evidence of carcinogenicity.
Q: What are some of the more exciting things in the future?
A: We are seeing incredible advances in biology. New technologies in plant breeding using gene editing technologies and other tools are creating better and faster ways to precisely modify genes and come up with new and better combinations. Biology is going to be a key for how we double yields to meet the future world food demand. We are also seeing a huge advance in data science tools. We’ve got satellites that take pictures of fields, and in a few years they’ll be doing that on a daily basis. That will give farmers even more insights on a real-time basis about conditions or disease outbreaks. We’re also using new tools to really understand soil health and the type of living microorganisms in the soil. We can take a teaspoon of dirt and extract the DNA from it to provide a fingerprint of types of microorganisms in that field. We’ve also got sensors being built into farm equipment that will take an image of every plant in the field, and map fields into meter-by-meter grids. That will help farmers make better decisions on which seed, or which planting density, or which type and amount of nutrient is best.