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Monsanto's message: Touring the company's biggest research facility

ST. LOUIS -- It's home to 1,700 scientists and cutting-edge agricultural research. If you're interested in agriculture or the food you eat, you can't ignore the work at Monsanto's Chesterfield (Mo.) Village Research Center.

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ST. LOUIS - It's home to 1,700 scientists and cutting-edge agricultural research. If you're interested in agriculture or the food you eat, you can't ignore the work at Monsanto's Chesterfield (Mo.) Village Research Center.

And whether you agree with that controversial work or not, you shouldn't ignore the message from Monsanto scientists and executives: We're educated, experienced and know agriculture. We want to help feed the world. We care about food safety and the environment. And we want to earn your trust.

"We've recognized in the last few years, we haven't done a great job of engaging with consumers, in sharing the work we do here at Monsanto," said Jesus Madrazo, the company's global corporate engagement lead. "We're committed to continue to advance that dialogue, that conversation, moving forward" and finding "common ground."

Parts of Monsanto's message, particularly that the company believes climate change is real and is working to address it, might surprise some, both in and out of agriculture.

"Five years ago, it would have been hard to believe that a company that makes seed - and that's really the heart, the lion's share, of our business - would be engaged in a conversation about climate change," said Hugh Grant, chairman and CEO.

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Grant and Madrazo spoke during a recent National Press Foundation fellowship on the Future of Food and Agriculture in St. Louis, where Monsanto is based. Chesterfield is a St. Louis suburb.

The four-day training session, for which I was one of 20 journalists nationwide selected, covered topics ranging from organic food and antibiotic use in animals to food waste and food safety. Most of the 20 journalists focus on food, rather than agriculture, with their coverage aimed primarily at urban residents.

A highlight of the training was the tour of the Chesterfield Research Center. The facility is Monsanto's biggest in the world, and its "global hub for research and development and agricultural innovation," the company says. The day-long tour included presentations by Monsanto scientists and executives, including Grant and Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer. Both Grant and Fraley answered questions from the journalists.

Madrazo said before the tour that anything and everything was open for discussion, with one exception: the bid by Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant, to acquire Monsanto, its agribusiness rival.

One journalist asked about Bayer anyway. Grant said he wouldn't answer.

Monsanto has about 20,000 employees worldwide who produce seeds for fruits, vegetables and crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, as well as products that protect crops from pests and disease. It's known best, especially among the general public, for its genetically engineered seed and Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide.

'Climate change is real'

The world's population will grow to roughly 9.5 billion within a generation. "At the same time, our little planet is going to get warmer, it's going to get thirstier and it's going to get drier," Grant said.

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That presents Monsanto and others in agriculture with "three significant challenges," he said. They are:

• "How to double food production on a shrinking footprint? When you talk to farmers, they say there's no new dirt. It's true."

• "How do you make agriculture a mitigant for climate change, rather than a problem?"

• "How do you use less water and protect soil?"

"They're the three points of the triangle," Grant said. "To solve two, I think, won't be enough."

Many in U.S. agriculture will disagree with the second of the three points, he acknowledged.

"In some parts of the country, you could have a healthy argument on the realities on climate change," he said. "But at Monsanto we believe it's real. Sometimes our customers don't call it climate change, but they do talk about the changes they see on their farm."

Monsanto thinks "agriculture can be a significant part of the solution," he said. "We see the opportunity of agriculture being a mitigant," in part through greater use of cover crops and reduced tillage.

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Monsanto wants to "help farmers produce better crops in a more sustainable way," Grant said.

"This is a topic that's really close to our heart and we're very passionable about."

I asked Grant about farmers' complaints that Monsanto should have better educated the public about genetically modified food before it introduced Roundup. In retrospect, would the company have done anything differently?

"The short answer, there's more we could have done," he said.

His longer answer: Roundup products came out in 1996, and public interest in food then wasn't nearly as strong as it is today. "Farmers have more to do (in informing the public about GMOs), as well."

Interest in food and agriculture will continue to grow, Grant said.

"The closer to agriculture you get, the more interesting it becomes," he said.

'Continue to innovate'

Fraley has been with Monsanto since 1981. The Chesterfield Village Research Center was built in the early 1980s and has undergone several expansions, including one under way now. When the current project is finished, the site will house about 2,000 scientists, he said.

Monsanto is "really one of the few companies that's completely focused on agriculture and farmers," he said. "We (employees) all have a passion for improving the lives of farmers and improving food security and production."

Even so, Monsanto and GMOs have "become icons that sometimes people really don't understand and appreciate," Fraley said. "A lot of people don't appreciate the technology that we developed, particularly for protecting crops against losses they incur from insects and weeds."

GMO crops are now "grown in 30 countries, on about a quarter of the world's land mass, because they provide great tools for improving yields and productivity, and reducing waste," he said.

America's most common foods, including corn, tomatoes, wheat and fresh fruits and vegetables aren't native to the U.S. and "were adapted and genetically modified," Fraley said. "We've been modifying genes since the beginning of time, first with the breeding techniques" and now with biotechnology.

"GMO foods are the most thoroughly studied foods in the world, and the safest, because of all the additional testing and research that's done on it," he said.

Despite their importance, GMOS are "not a Holy Grail." Monsanto is working on many tools and approaches, including making better use of soil organisms, to improve yields and food safety, he said.

Glyphosate-resistant weeds are a major and growing problem in U.S. agriculture, in part because many farmers used Roundup products too often. Agronomists now stress the need to control weeds in multiple ways, rather than rely exclusively on Roundup products.

I asked Fraley whether that's influencing Monsanto.

He said his company recognized from the beginning that weeds would build up resistance, and consequently has worked to develop other products, and combination of products, to control weeds.

Years ago, after the arrival of penicillin and other antibiotics, the pharmaceutical industry "stopped inventing new products," Fraley said. "That was a mistake. We learned from that."

The "greatest benefit we have, is just continuing to invent and create new products that have value," Fraley said. "In the end, that's what we do - continue to innovate and give farmers better and better tools."

Taking the tour

The tour of the Chesterfield facility included brief visits to its greenhouse, and genetic marker and entomology labs, interviews with scientists and other company officials, and what were billed as "hands-on demonstrations."

One of the demonstrations, led by Aimee Hood, information management and communication lead, involved a bit of low-tech genetic manipulation of corn seed.

Monsanto employees stressed their experience, education, commitment to food safety and personal ties to agriculture.

The tour focused, in part, on countering public perceptions that Monsanto is involved only in GMOs and it doesn't care about food's taste or nutrition.

Two examples:

• Ryan Bartlett, global technology development lead for BioAg and seed treatments, talked about his company's work in promoting healthy microorganisms in the soil to improve crops.

• Chow-Ming Lee, consumer sensory lead, discussed Monsanto's effort to make tastier food. His presentation included a short, simplified taste test in which the journalists participated.

Dissenting views

Some agriculturalists, several of whom spoke during the National Press Foundation fellowship, have a different take on modern ag.

"There is a better way of farming," said Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' food and environmental program. He has a master's degree and doctorate in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University.

"I really admire what they do as plant breeders," he said of Monsanto. "But I wish they would do different things with different objectives."

Monsanto and other big crop input providers, as well as ag research universities, dominate America's agricultural system and want to maintain the status quo, he said.

But the nation and its consumers would be much better off if Midwest and southern farmers switch acres from wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton to fruits and vegetables. Americans in general eat far too little fruit and vegetables, and Midwest farmers should grow more of them, he said.

But there's a "tacit agreement" between southern and Midwest farmers and West Coast fruit and vegetable growers. It allows the former to continue receiving federal farm program aid to grow wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton, while protecting the West Coast producers from Midwest competition, Salvador said.

West Coast farmers and their commodity groups say, "Look, you Midwestern farmers can do what you do, you get your commodity payments in whatever form you can get out of Congress - we won't stand in your way, as long as you don't compete with us in fruits and vegetables," Salvador said.

"Small amounts of (fruit and vegetable) plants in the Midwest would wipe out California farms. Because the supply would increase dramatically and prices (of fruit and vegetables) would go down," he said. "You know the land here in the Midwest. You basically just drop the seed in the ground and get out of the way."

The four-day fellowship included a walking tour of Bussmann Organic Farm. Craig and Beth Bussmann raise organic corn, soybeans, wheat and hay on 232 acres near Gillespie, Ill., east of St. Louis.

"I don't like chemicals," and a growing number of consumers feel the same way, Craig Bussmann said.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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