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Monsanto Is Using Big Data to Take over the World

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Envionment and Climate Resource Center page.

From Big Ag to big data hin255/Shutterstock;
Illustration by Tim McDonnell


You probably know Monsanto as the world's leading producer of genetically engineered seeds-a global agribusiness giant whose critics accuse it of everything from boosting our reliance on pesticides to driving Indian farmers to suicide.

But that's actually just the latest in a long series of evolving corporate identities. When the company was founded in 1901 by a St. Louis pharmacist, its initial product was artificial sweetener. Over the next few decades Monsanto expanded into industrial chemicals, releasing its first agricultural herbicide, 2,4-D, in 1945. In the '50s it produced laundry detergent, the infamous insecticide DDT, and chemical components for nuclear bombs. In the '60s it churned out Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. In the '70s it became one of the largest producers of LED lights.

It was around this time that Robb Fraley, now Monsanto's chief technology officer, joined the company as a mid-level biotechnology scientist. Back then, he recalls, the company had its hand in oil wells, plastics, carpets-you name it. It wasn't until the early '80s that Monsanto began to shift its focus to biotechnology, conducting the first US field trials of bioengineered plants in 1987. By the end of the '90s, it was a full-fledged biotech company. And over the last 10 years, after a series of seed company acquisitions, it has become the company we all know and love-or hate-today.

Now, there's a new evolution on the horizon: "I could easily see us in the next five or 10 years being an information technology company," says Fraley.

That's right: Monsanto is making a big move into big data. At stake is an opportunity to adapt to climate change by using computer science alongside the controversial genetic science that has been the company's signature for a generation. Data stands to benefit Monsanto's bottom line, too: In its 2013 annual report, the company blamed lost profits on knowledge gaps about both the climate and its customers' farming practices. And information services could even help Monsanto get its foot (and its seeds) in the door of untapped global markets from Africa to South America.

Seeds of a data company

Whatever your feelings about Monsanto, it's hard to argue that the company isn't paying attention to climate change. When I met Fraley in New York in September, he explained that since he joined the company in 1981, Monsanto scientists have observed corn production belts migrate northward by about 200 miles. That means traditional strongholds like Kansas are becoming less productive, while new markets for Monsanto products are opening in places like North Dakota and southern Canada. But for Fraley, who has spent his career digging through the minutiae of microscopic nucleotides, the most interesting trends are emerging on a much smaller scale.

"Just a couple degrees difference changes when insects will hatch, or when diseases will break out," he says. "So that puts a real premium on modeling microclimatic conditions, so you can become predictive on not only which field, but which part of a field should someone be looking at."    
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