Inside the Country's Most Controversial Company

| Wed Apr. 20, 2016 6:00 AM EDT
From left, Glenn Stone, Tom Philpott, and Robb Fraley at Monsanto’s Global R&D Headquarters Facility in St. Louis, April 2016

I normally cover the agrichemical industry from afar—parsing World Health Organization pesticide assessments, say, or analyzing megamergers. But on a recent afternoon, I found myself plunged into the industry's very bosom: Monsanto's global R&D center in suburban St. Louis.

Alongside Washington University anthropologist Glenn Stone—whose undergraduate class on "brave new crops" I was in town to address—I spent five hours winding through the labyrinthine corridors of the vast facility, speaking with researchers, scientists, and managers from all five of the company's "innovation platforms": biotechnology, plant breeding, soil microbes, pesticides, and data science. Our long march through the building was bookended by interviews at a conference table with Monsanto's chief technology officer, Robb Fraley, who's an early innovator in genetically altered crops and a tireless defender of the controversial company.

What I look like through the heat-sensing camera Monsanto uses to asses heat stress in crops in its research greenhouse.

In his classic 2001 book on the rise of Monsanto as an agribusiness titan, Lords of the Harvest, Dan Charles portrays Fraley as a ruthless figure. "He's a really smart guy, but absolutely merciless," a former Monsanto exec tells Charles. I found Fraley formidable: a barrel-chested man with a large bald head and a steady, skeptical gaze. But he was also unfailingly friendly and even occasionally light-hearted—we joked about our common baldness, and he expressed regret that he hadn't donned a flat cap like the one I wore that day, "just to fit in."

Monsanto once had a reputation as a tightly guarded company, but has made an effort in recent years to be more transparent. My entire visit was on the record, and Fraley and other Monsanto workers spoke freely. Here are some things I learned.

The company doesn't seem too keen on old-school GMOs anymore. Fraley accompanied us to the biotechnology wing of the research center, the first stop on our tour. Strikingly, we didn't hear a peep about the GM wonder crops that the industry used to claim were just around the corner: corn that grows well in drought conditions, say, or thrives with minimal amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Instead, we heard vigorous defenses of a trait that Monsanto has been selling since genetically altered crops first hit farm fields in the mid-'90s: the insect-killing gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt.

A researcher from India described his childhood on a two-acre farm applying insecticides with a backpack sprayer—a hazardous activity made obsolete, he said, by the rise of Monsanto's Bt cotton in India. Then the same researcher launched into the benefits of another crop—a soybean product now taking off in Brazil. It's engineered to contain both the Bt insecticide and the other GM trait that Monsanto has been selling since the 1990s: resistance to glyphosate, the company's flagship herbicide. In other words, during our stop at the biotech wing, we heard about nothing completely new, but rather about the same two traits Monsanto has been selling for two decades: herbicide tolerance and Bt.

"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said.

Later, back at the conference table, Fraley gave a surprisingly sober assessment of GMOs for an executive who has spent his career promoting and defending them. He declared that classical plant breeding, sped up by genomic tools, is the "mainstay," "base engine," and "core" of Monsanto's business, and stressed that it always would be, adding that it takes up half of the company's R&D budget.

"When people think of us, they always think of Monsanto as the GMO company," Fraley said. "I helped invent it [GM technology], and we've been the leader in that space," he said. "But by far the biggest contribution we've made to yield gains around the world is how we've applied biotechnology to the [classical] breeding engine itself."

Gene transfer is an expensive technology—"it costs us $150 million to develop a GMO product," he said. "We only use it on things we can't do any other way. The only way to get a Bt gene into a corn or soybean plant is to use gene-transfer technology and create a GMO," he said.

Otherwise, Monsanto prefers to use classical breeding or seed treatments—pesticides that are taken up by the plant as it grows. I asked him whether GM technology could, as boosters used to insist, one day achieve grand visions like corn that mimics legumes and snatches nitrogen out of the air for self-fertilization. "Not likely," Fraley said. He and his team have concluded that creating a nitrogen-fixing corn through gene transfer would require 30 separate traits, he said, and thus be way too costly.

But that doesn't mean Monsanto is giving up on cutting-edge techniques. While downplaying the role of gene transfer, Fraley and other Monsanto employees embraced other genetic methods for altering crops: gene silencing, or RNAi (which I've discussed at length here), and gene-editing techniques, like the much-ballyhooed CRISPR-Cas9. Fraley declared these technologies "transformative" and took pains to classify them as variations on breeding, not GMO technologies. (Washington University's Glenn Stone, who accompanied me on the tour, has more on this rhetorical effort here.)

Gene editing tools like CRISPR are a "superdirected" version of classical breeding. They "let you breed even faster and better, and allow you to do some of the things you can do [with GM technology], but won't let you introduce a new trait," he said.

As for RNAi gene-silencing technologies, Monsanto has plenty in the pipeline, Fraley added. There's a corn product in the final stages of US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency vetting that contains RNAi matter that will target and kill specific crop-chomping insects, leaving everything else unscathed, he said (though this is not a universally held belief). He also pointed to an RNAi spray in the works that will silence the genes that allow weeds to withstand the glyphosate herbicide—adding new life to a key Monsanto product now losing effectiveness as weeds evolve to resist it.

Soil microbiota supplements are hot! (And they apparently go well with pesticides.) My favorite episode of our trip was our stop at Monsanto's emerging soil microbial unit, which develops supplements meant to boost soil health and produce more robust crops.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained.

"You have more microbial cells in you than you have your own cells," a researcher explained. "A plant is no different—I guarantee there are more cells [in soil microbes] than there are in plants." And so Monsanto is working diligently to identify and market the "most beneficial" of the microbes—ones that can help make nutrients more bio-available to crops, or crowd out soil-borne pathogens. And just like people can eat yogurt or take "probiotic" supplements to add beneficial microbes to their gut biomes, farmers can buy microbial seed treatments and sprays to fortify their soil, he said.

I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both in our bodies and in the dirt.

Now, I'm not someone who's readily convinced that Big Pharma is going to come up with some magic probiotic mix that transforms human health; nor do I think Big Agrichemical is going to stumble upon and package just the right combo of microbe species for growing robust crops without lots of fertilizers and pesticides. The microbial communities that exist in animal guts and in the soil have evolved over eons. I suspect that diverse diets and crop rotations—not lab-grown potions—are key to engendering healthy biomes, both within our bodies and in the dirt.

Still, I was happy to see Monsanto was thinking in terms of adding life to soil, not dousing it with chemicals designed to stamp out life. So what I saw next made my jaw drop. The researchers pointed to a glass case (below) featuring hearty-looking corn and soybean plants grown with microbial products already on the market, with placards featuring names like Control, Tag Team, Optimize, and Biological.

New products from Monsanto's soil-microbiota team

But for each of the six products, I noticed, the words "Acceleron® Fungicide and Insecticide" appeared under the product name. I cleared my throat and asked why "biological" products were being marketed under biocide labels. The researcher handled the question in stride. "What we've done is taken biological products and put it on top of the fungicides and insecticides most [corn and soybean] growers are using today," he said.

Fine print: "Acceleron Fungicide and Insecticide"

Eventually, he said, they hope growers will begin to actually replace the chemicals with microbes. (In case they don't, Monsanto seems to be hedging its bets—earlier in the tour, I had met people from the chemicals division who informed me that the company is also developing new fungicides.)

Later, I looked up the Acceleron product. It turns out it's marketed by Asgrow, one of Monsanto's seed subsidiaries. It's a mix of pyraclostrobin, the potentially worrisome fungicide I wrote about last week, and Imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid class of insecticides that's suspected of harming bees, birds, and aquatic creatures.

As for the microbial mix the company mashes up with those potent chemicals: It's made up of Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, a common soil bacteria, and trichoderma virens, which is, yes, a fungus. So probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package. (Presumably, that particular fungicide doesn't kill the trichoderma virens fungus.)

Probably the most remarkable thing I learned on my trip is that Monsanto is marketing a fungus and a fungicide in the same package.

Altogether, it was an informative and provocative visit. In addition to what I've chronicled here, I also learned about impressive non-CRISPR technology used to speed up good old classical breeding, and I had a fascinating conversation with Fraley and other executives about the data services Monsanto sells to farmers—topics I plan to explore in future posts.

And I greatly appreciated the access and transparency granted to me. In our conversations, Fraley repeatedly mentioned the importance of open dialogue between Monsanto and its critics, and I agree. I hope we can continue it.

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Watch Donald Trump Blast the GOP's "Crooked System" in His NY Victory Speech

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 10:23 PM EDT

Speaking from Trump Tower in Manhattan on Tuesday, Donald Trump celebrated his resounding victory in New York's Republican primary. The GOP front-runner took the opportunity to dismiss his challengers, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, and to declare the race essentially over.

"Senator Cruz is just about mathematically eliminated," Trump told a crowd of supporters. "We've won another state. As you know we have won a million more votes than Senator Cruz. Millions and millions of more votes than Governor Kasich."

"We're really, really rocking," he added.

The real estate magnate closed out his victory speech by once again criticizing the Republican party, describing its presidential nomination system as "rigged." At one point, Trump even referenced the battle that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are currently waging for the support of Democratic superdelegates.

"Nobody should take delegates and claim victory unless they get those delegates with voters and voting," he said. "And that's what's going to happen, and you watch, because the people aren't going to stand for it. It's a crooked system."

In the 21st Century, We All Want Smart, Gorgeous Mates

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 7:59 PM EDT

Wonkblog points us today to a chart from Max Roser showing how men and women rated various aspects of potential mates in 1939 vs. 2009. (Since 1939 is the comparison year, it goes without saying that we're talking about straight, cis, and most likely white folks here.) You can see the entire set of data at either of the links above, but I was interested mainly in the traits that have moved up or down significantly over that period. Here they are, in a handily color-coded pink and blue chart:

What can we tell from this? For starters, keep in mind that this is what people say they value, not what they actually value. "Similar political background," for example, has allegedly moved up only one spot, from dead last to almost last, so it's not in my chart. But there's considerable evidence that a lot of people today would rather have their big toes cut off than associate with someone of the opposite party. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

Anyway, obviously chastity is out the door. No one cares anymore. Refinement is now decidedly old-fashioned, replaced by a desire for the more egalitarian virtue of sociability. And love has zoomed up to the top of the chart. (Allegedly, anyway.)

Beyond that, the two big movers are education and good looks. Apparently we all want mates who are both smart and gorgeous, which might go a long way toward explaining why marriage seems to be in decline. How many smart, gorgeous people are there in the world, after all? And if they have to be gregarious too—well, you're just being mighty picky. Good luck.

Notably, the boring traits haven't changed much: dependability and stability were near the top of the chart in 1939, and they're still there now. I guess meat and potatoes are always in fashion. Or so we tell the pollsters, anyway.

Here's a Sneak Preview of the Upcoming Republican Health Care Plan

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 6:46 PM EDT

Seven years after they first promised an alternative health care proposal, Republicans now say they're close. "Give us a little time, another month or so," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told reporters this week. Steve Benen is unimpressed:

The problem probably isn’t dishonesty. In all likelihood, Republicans would love to have a health care plan of their own — no one likes to appear ridiculous while breaking promises — but haven’t because they don’t know how to craft one.

Not true! They know exactly how to craft one. In fact, I've seen a leak of their upcoming plan. Here it is:

  • Block granting of Medicaid
  • Tort reform
  • Interstate purchase of health plans
  • High-risk pools
  • Tax breaks for buying individual coverage
  • Health savings accounts

None of this would have much effect on the health care market, and it would probably fall about 19 million short of covering the 20 million people currently covered by Obamacare. That's why they don't want to unveil it. They know what they want, and they know how to craft it, but they still don't know how to make up a plausible set of lies about how it will do anybody any good. As soon as they figure that part out, they'll go public the next day.

Supreme Court Urges Nevada to Stop Hating on California

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 2:58 PM EDT

Excellent news. In a case pitting a Nevada resident against the bureaucrats of the state of California, the Supreme Court has confirmed that Nevada does indeed hate California and needs to knock it off:

Nevada has not applied the principles of Nevada law ordinarily applicable to suits against Nevada’s own agencies. Rather, it has applied a special rule of law applicable only in lawsuits against its sister States, such as California.

....The Nevada Supreme Court explained its departure from those general principles by describing California’s system of controlling its own agencies as failing to provide “adequate” recourse to Nevada’s citizens....Such an explanation, which amounts to little more than a conclusory statement disparaging California’s own legislative, judicial, and administrative controls, cannot justify the application of a special and discriminatory rule. Rather, viewed through a full faith and credit lens, a State that disregards its own ordinary legal principles on this ground is hostile to another State.

....We can safely conclude that, in devising a special—and hostile—rule for California, Nevada has not “sensitively applied principles of comity with a healthy regard for California’s sovereign status.”

The case itself doesn't matter much. An inventor moved to Nevada and then sued California when it harassed him for back taxes. Nevada normally limits these judgments to $50,000 even if you win, but as long as you're suing California, it turns out the sky's the limit. The Supreme Court was not amused. Nevada can't do that just because they think poorly of California's laws.

But all is forgiven now. Come to the beach and relax, Nevadans! Don't let the dark side consume you.

Hillary's Right. Tabasco Sauce Is Great.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 2:53 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton carries around Tabasco in her purse. UPROXX thinks this means she is "trying too hard." UPROXX is stupid. She has done this for years. She really likes Tabasco. A lot of people don't and have used this occasion to make jokes about Tabasco. I rise in its defense.

Here's what you need to understand about Tabasco. It isn't really a hot sauce. It's silly to compare it to other hot sauces because it really isn't that hot, but it is good. It is a vinegar sauce. A delicious vinegar sauce that America loves. It makes almost anything better. What would a Bloody Mary be without Tabasco? What about corned beef hash? Do you like corned beef hash? Of course you do. Everyone likes corned beef hash. But would you like corned beef hash without Tabasco? I am not so sure.

No matter what you call it, it is undeniable that America has chosen Tabasco as its spicy condiment of choice. It is in almost every single restaurant in America. The places that do not have it are flipping the bird to the American people.

Tabasco Tabasco Tabasco. Yum yum yum. Confession: I have been known to take hits of Tabasco straight.

Now let's go a bit further.

The worst condiment in America is mayonnaise. Mayonnaise offends my senses and makes me want to vomit. However, Americans love mayonnaise. I forgive them for this. America is about choice. Americans should be allowed to have their disgusting mayonnaise. But if we are going to allow people to have mayonnaise when they want, then we need to allow people to have Tabasco without shame.

Here's the real worst thing about mayonnaise: When you ask a waiter for a BLT with no mayo, they do not respect the no mayo wish. They think in their addled minds, "How could anyone not want mayo?" Well, look, I don't want mayo. Get away from me.

I would understand people who don't like Tabasco getting upset if Tabasco were treated with the same assumptions as mayonnaise, but it is not so. Tabasco is never just on something. They give you the bottle and you make your own mind up. You have no reason to be mad about Tabasco. Tabasco isn't forcing itself on you. Tabasco is just there; if you want to use it, use it.

Your outrage about Tabasco is misplaced. If you want sriracha or Tapatio or whatever, that's fine! Live and let live, bro. The fact that other people's enjoyment of Tabasco incenses you so says something about you. Not Tabasco. It is an indictment of your emotional maturity. I don't know why you can't let people be happy, but you can't. Maybe your parents weren't around. Maybe your dad went to the store to buy some Tabasco and never came back. I don't care. Take it up with a therapist. Let people who want to indulge in Tabasco without fear of social retribution do so. It is why the pilgrims sailed across a sea.

You know what other condiment is great is mustard. Mustard is great. You know what other condiment is not so great? Ketchup. Ketchup is too sweet! Ketchup is also, like mayonnaise, one of those things that restaurants just assume you want on things. I do not. If I wanted ketchup on something I would ask for it. Be outraged about ketchup and mayonnaise. Not Tabasco.

Tabasco has done nothing to you.

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Chart of the Day: Americans Think Hard Work Is the Key to Success. Europeans, Not So Much.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 2:25 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating result from the plucky pollsters at Pew Research:

I'm not surprised that the US ranks highest. But I am surprised at how much higher. Only a quarter of the French think that hard work is important for getting ahead in life? How about that. Even the famously diligent Germans clock in at only 49 percent.

Granted, in order to make the grade, you have to score this as 10 (or "10," as Pew puts it) on a 0-10 scale. Maybe Europeans tend to score it as a 9—still pretty important, but not quite totally life-engulfing. Either way, though, apparently we Americans continue to believe in the importance of hard work a lot more than our Europeans peers. No 6-week vacations for us!

The Gig Economy Is Mostly a Myth

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 1:05 PM EDT

The gig economy. Uber for X. The on-demand revolution. Crappy part-time work with no benefits or job security.

Call it what you will, but it's big. Very, very big. It's the future.

Or is it? It's important to define things correctly here. The "gig economy"—and I really want to know who came up with this idiotic name—has nothing to do with using software as some kind of consumer front end. Practically every company in the world does that in one way or another. Nor is Amazon "Uber for diapers." They're just a gigantic retailer that delivers stuff fast.

What we're really talking about here is being able to hire the services of random strangers (a) quickly and (b) for unpredictable amounts of time. The truth is that Uber could be run entirely via old-school phones and a call center. It would be less convenient, but still workable. So why is it that Uber has been phenomenally successful but few other on-demand services have come anywhere close? Matt Yglesias suggests that everyone misunderstood what Uber was really doing:

What optimistic investors missed about Uber clones is that hailing rides is a bit of a unique case. In that particular market, digital ordering isn't just a little better than the old analog alternative, it's dramatically better. But that's because of the ways rides for hire were regulated, not something that applied to food or laundry delivery.

The traditional taxi market before the rise of ride-hailing apps was regulated in a peculiar way....In the vast majority of cases, the agencies in question were essentially "captured" by industry lobbyists who set the rules so as to protect the incumbent holders of taxi licenses from competition.

....App-based ride hailing was a game changer in this context, not just because it offered a somewhat better way to get a ride, but because in Uber's earliest cities it exploited loopholes in the way taxi regulations were written to put vehicles for hire on the road that would not have been allowed to operate as cabs.

In other words, Uber wasn't primarily a technology hack, as everyone assumes. It was a regulatory hack. Try to do Uber for groceries or Uber forbabysitting and you have to compete with everyone who's already out there—most of whom have been operating in a competitive market forever and know a lot about how to do it. It just won't work as well as it does when you're taking on a long-coddled industry.

If this is true—and it certainly sounds plausible—it's important to take away the right lesson from this. It's not that new startups should all start beavering away to find regulatory hacks. It's that you have to have some kind of hack. In its early days, Netflix hacked the postal service. Amazon hacked the clubby publishing clique. Uber hacked the taxi medallion system.

"On demand" is nothing new. Ask any freelancer or consultant or day laborer. App-based dispatching adds some convenience to on-demand services, but in most cases it's nothing to shout about. That's because the market economy is already an on-demand machine. That's the whole point of a market economy. If you make that machine a little better, you'll make a little bit of money. But if you find some kind of niche that you can make a lot better, you'll make a lot of money. You just have to find the niche.

Nothing Matters

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 12:48 PM EDT

Once upon a time a young man from Canada stood in front of a chalkboard and discussed physics and the whole world heard his tale and was bewitched by his grace and people wrote letters that said "I love this young man from Canada" and "I would like to have sex with this young man from Canada" and the children of the world held hands and cried out his name in admiration.



Remember this?

Well it was maybe a bit staged:

“To summarize, the PM went to a place and learned about a thing,” McCollough writes. “During the speech that followed, he excitedly suggested he wanted to talk about the thing he just learned. A reporter was disinterested in playing along, and tried to ask a more relevant question, but Trudeau ignored him and launched into what was clearly a pre-prepared treatise on the thing.”

In an update to that Gawker post the PM's press secretary denies it was staged. Read the whole thing and make up your own mind.

My mind? INVADE.


It Was Night Goggles, Not the Taliban

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 12:15 PM EDT

Here's the result of an Air Force investigation:

A solid plastic case designed to hold a set of night-vision goggles was ultimately responsible for causing the crash of an Air Force transport plane that killed 14 people in October, the Air Force announced in a statement last week.

This is obviously a tragedy, all the more so for having such a trivial cause. But what's interesting is what came next:

Twenty-eight seconds after takeoff, 14 people, including the four crew members, two Air Force security personnel and five civilian contractors aboard, were dead. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the crash, saying it shot down the aircraft.

I often wonder how many claims of this nature are actually true. Many of them are, obviously. But it's pretty easy to claim responsibility for just about anything, and it's good PR to take credit for killing a bunch of Americans. Maybe too easy.