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GMO Factory Monsanto's High-Tech Plans to Feed the World

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

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."