On the day last year that I visited Robb Fraley, chief scientist of Monsanto, at the company’s St. Louis headquarters, he’d just come from a meeting with some farmers.
Fraley laughed when I asked what they wanted. “Higher yields, of course,” he said. Farmers always want more stuff from an acre.
Fraley has had a big idea about how to get there. In 20 years, seeds will be planted from something like an ink-jet printer, they’ll have 20 traits engineered into their genomes, and farmers will use designer microbes and genetic sprays to control pests. All of it will be coördinated, to the inch, by weather and analytics software. Corn yields, Fraley told me, could double again—to a staggering 300 bushels per acre—and help feed the world.
Yesterday Monsanto agreed to sell itself, and Fraley’s dream, to Germany’s Bayer, in a deal that is valued at $66 billion. To many observers, the merger is mostly a way to cut costs in the face of plunging prices for corn and soybeans. But according to one member of Bayer’s executive suite, the real reason for it is that Bayer sees the world the same way Fraley does.
“The primary driver is innovation,” says Liam Condon, head of Bayer’s crop science division and a member of its management board. “Both of us are advocating a new approach—not improving the bits and pieces, but optimizing the whole system.”
Condon says combining the companies will bring together Monsanto’s expertise in seeds and genetic engineering with Bayer’s lineup of crop chemicals. “They are primarily biotech; we are primarily chemistry,” says Condon. “If we just keep doing innovation the way we’ve always done, it is just taking longer and getting more expensive.”
Getting a biotech seed to market already costs about $150 million and takes a decade. Meanwhile, the pace of new chemical introductions has slowed industry-wide. Both companies’ product lines face weighty regulations and punishing public opposition.
The takeover of Monsanto is part of a wider consolidation of ag-chemical companies. In July, DuPont and Dow Chemical agreed to merge, and they plan to combine their agricultural businesses as a single company; meanwhile, France’s Syngenta is in the process of being acquired by ChemChina. BASF remains independent. If the deals go through, it will pare what’s been called the “Big 6” to just four companies.
In a profile this summer, Fortune magazine called Monsanto “the most vilified company on the planet” but noted that it’s also one of the most successful. Its biotech plants spread over 180 million acres of soy and corn fields. And with its nearly $1 billion purchase of the Climate Corporation, in 2013, it also made a long-term bet on data-driven agriculture.
Even though the Climate Corporation’s weather and analytics platform hasn’t been profitable for Monsanto, it probably added to the price Bayer was willing to pay, says Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO of BioConsortia in Davis, California. He believes the most “exciting” question is whether the combined company can further develop the big-data approach to farming, with strategies like tractors that connect to predictive software.
Others say some of Monsanto’s new ideas were not moving quickly enough. One, a way to clobber weeds with a spritz of genetic molecules, was retired from recent R&D presentations, although plans to kill insects with the same technology, called RNA interference, are moving forward. “Their new platforms have not yet been breakthroughs. Progress has not been as expected,” says Nitzan Paldi, a former Monsanto executive who now runs a startup, Forrest Innovations. “It seems to me that Monsanto is facing very strong headwinds and that management is probably relieved not to have to face them alone.”
Monsanto took the lead in agricultural biotech in the mid-1990s by pairing its weed killer, Roundup, with soy and corn engineered to survive the chemical. Yet that combination isn’t so useful anymore. Roundup was overused, and now weeds resistant to it are springing up everywhere. Bayer sells a competing combination of GMOs and weed killers under its Liberty brand.
Combined, the two companies spent about $2.75 billion on agricultural R&D in 2015. In a merger, it’s probably inevitable that the figure will get pared back. “They are scrambling to spread their fixed costs over higher output,” says Philip Pardey, an economist at the University of Minnesota. “Over the last two years there have been a lot of heads rolling.” Monsanto has announced more than 3,000 layoffs in the last 12 months, about one-seventh of its workforce.
John Killmer, a former Monsanto executive and now CEO of Apse, a St. Louis company developing genetic techniques, says he thinks the deal is being driven by “bloodless accountants in green eyeshades,” not by technology.
“My take is that net innovation within the companies will decline,” Killmer says. “I think the farmer, from an innovation perspective, loses in this type of deal, and his losses likely will be even higher because the new entity will have so much market power.” He predicts higher prices and fewer choices, and if regulators see the deal the same way, they could decide to block it.
European regulators have already signaled they will look closely at the deal, and given the companies’ overlap in pesticides and genetically modified seeds, the likely decision is far from clear. “It’s definitely not a done a deal,” Pardey says. “I think the odds might be low.”
The run of mergers between the largest companies in agriculture comes amid a small boom in startup companies exploring new uses of genomics, microbes, technologies like gene editing, drones, and sensors. “A lot of innovative ideas are spilling in from outside the ag industry,” says Pardey. “I think they will pick it up by gobbling up startups.”
Another uncertainty is what will happen to the Monsanto name if the merger goes through. But retiring it might be a good idea, says Kevin Folta, chairman of horticultural science at the University of Florida.
The name Monsanto is “an instant emotional conversation-ender” says Folta. “Maybe by taking out the bogeyman, the public can finally start to entertain scientific conversations about agricultural technology.”
This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI
The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models.
Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist
An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.
Data analytics reveal real business value
Sophisticated analytics tools mine insights from data, optimizing operational processes across the enterprise.
Driving companywide efficiencies with AI
Advanced AI and ML capabilities revolutionize how administrative and operations tasks are done.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.