In the second part of Here & Now's interview with Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, host Jeremy Hobson asks the head of the agrochemical and biotech giant about its production of pesticides, which some activists believe cause cancer, the aftereffects of PCBs, which Monsanto stopped making in the 1970s, and organic farming.
Interview Highlights: Hugh Grant
People think your Roundup pesticide could be linked with cancer and other health problems. How do you respond to that?
“Roundup is not a carcinogen. It’s 40 years old, it’s been studied; virtually every year of its life it’s been under a review somewhere in the world by regulatory authorities. So Canada and Europe just finished. Europe finished their review last year and came back with glowing colors. The Canadians were the same and now we are going through a similar process in the U.S., so I’ve absolutely no concerns about the safety of the product."
Do you ever envision a pesticide-free Monsanto?
"A pesticide-free Monsanto, or a pesticide-free world, if you look at the last 20 years - and this is probably myth number two that’s been exploded - pesticide use has been reduced, and as we have seen the increase in GMOs, the use of pesticides has decreased significantly. The reason for that is mainly an insecticide, the chemicals that kill bugs. Bug control is now done by the plant more than it’s done by the sprays on the top. If I think about the next 30 or 40 years, I think through the use of data we’ll be applying these chemistries much more accurately and we’ll be applying them earlier, so applying them before diseases really take a hold in these crops or bugs are tearing these crops apart, so I think we’ll be more prophylactic, we’ll be more accurate and our selection of these chemistries will be a lot more discriminating. That’s kind of my vision of the future as through the use of data and bringing biology and science together, we’ll get much smarter about how we use these things, a bit like how the vision works for personalized medicine.”
Is there a place for organic farms in your vision of the world 30 years down the road?
“Yeah there is, absolutely. You know, it’s funny, you say 30 years, its 30 harvests from now. If you think about a grower who inherits the farm when he’s in his 30s, he retires in his 60s, it’s the career of a farmer: 30 springs, 30 harvests. I think organic farming is going to have a place. When you look at the demands – I was in China last week. Beijing was building, they’ve actually completed their sixth ring road, so there’s six beltways around Beijing. They’re eating up arable land, as the cities push out and as urbanization increases, we’re going to need all kinds of agriculture. I think the sad thing today is that this is so polarized. It’s framed somehow as big verses little, or organic verses conventional, or local verses production agriculture. I don’t think there’s one solution in this. We’re going to need everybody at the table, and the faster we can move to a conversation that says, you know, organic and production verses organic or, there’s a lot of energy and friction wasted in that conversation I think.”
On consolidation of companies in the chemicals industry
“I think consolidation is inevitable. The moves don’t worry me. I think that the cards that we hold, the portfolio that we have, the R&D pipeline that we have is really unique in the industry so I kinda like the position that we have. The reality today is research continues to cost more and more at the moment. The last couple of years, and I see it continuing through this spring, growers are under tremendous pressure not just here in the U.S., but worldwide. Commodity prices are down.”
Do you feel that on your bottom line when commodity process drop?
“Yes we do. I mean we win or lose with the growers, so we absolutely feel it and we’re trimming our costs accordingly. So I think consolidation, a piece of that, is the efficiency plea that growers and our customers are experiencing. We kind of rise or fall with them through this. The long-term reality, and growers always say ‘I’m not in farming for one year,’ it’s a generational business. If you take the long view, the demand curves are alive and well, the planet continues to look for sources of protein and I’m still very bullish in agriculture despite the slowdown at the moment.”
What’s the next step for Monsanto? What will you be building next?
“We were a chemical business that became a biotech and biology business that morphed into a seed business. I think the main transition as you look forward is the application of data. It takes about 40 decisions, from right around now until harvest in August or September, the grower takes about 40 decisions to produce a crop. Some of those decisions are highly technified, and others it’s because of what his mom and dad did or what he hears in the coffee shop or what he read in a magazine. So we’ve been populating those 40 decisions with data and I think by improving the quality of decisions, you increase the yield. I think the transition for Monsanto is increasingly in the next 10 years becoming a solutions-driven company, and coalescing the biology, the more accurate application of chemistry and the much smarter use of data. You know, these big green John Deere combines are streaming data off the field, one yard at a time, and it’s how you use that biological data and apply it back to the field to help growers with better insights, I think that’s going to be the next piece.”
On the West Coast cities planning on suing Monsanto over damages from products containing PCBs, which have since been banned
“When we formed the new company, we retained the name, but it was really the former Monsanto, and it was back in the 1960s and ‘70s, so 40 or 50 years ago. We did produce PCBs at that time, PCBs are still in the environment. We would contest the claims on the health effects of these, but frankly I think the argument with much of this is how the products that contain those PCBs, how they were disposed of and a lot of them were manufactured by other companies and then disposed of inappropriately. We’ve been working with these cities for decades now in part of that cleanup, but we are not wholly responsible for that. There’s other people in that chain that are responsible.”
But you admit partial responsibility?
“We manufactured these products, but we’re not responsible for how they were subsequently disposed of.”
- Hugh Grant, CEO of the Monsanto Corporation.
This segment aired on March 31, 2016.