Renewable Farming

If farming’s future is in biotech, why is Monsanto pivoting toward data sciences?

When we’re told about a new product, one of our favorite comments is, “Show me the data.”

That’s one of the favorite lines of our favorite mentors, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa.

Dick and his wife Sharon were instrumental in founding Practical Farmers of Iowa in 1985.

The value of good data in agriculture is being reaffirmed.  Monsanto Inc. is “transforming” itself from a seed company into a data and precision farming company. Hopefully, that will help farmers detect profitable and ecologically sound products and practices. 

GPS and combine yield monitors are just the beginning. Add map layering, satellite imaging, tethered drones, wireless field sensing, electronic soil fertility sensing — we’re just at the preview stage.

But — if farming’s future is in genetically engineered seeds to feed the world, why steer a powerhouse corporation off that track? You can read the back story from Reuters at this link, on the CNBC site. The people seeking to serve Monsanto stockholders, and themselves, are very smart. Could it be that they are watching nation after nation bar transgenic crop growing within their borders? Could they be listening to Moms Across America and the many other “activist” leaders insisting on healthy food? Could they anticipate that nations which bar growing of GMO crops will soon look for ways to avoid importing that stuff?

Might they be reading report after report of popular rebellions against today’s toxic approach to weed control? See this example from Argentina.

Reporter Carey Gillam of Reuters has dug out some of the leading-edge indicators on the biotech front. She and another Reuters reporter cite Monsanto chief technology officer Robert T. Fraley: “We transformed from industrial chemical company to a biotech company, then to a seeds company. Now, we’re transforming again.”

Monsanto bought planter equipment maker Precision Planting in 2012 and weather services firm Climate Corp. in 2013.

Perhaps Monsanto, not Deere or Horsch Maschinen GmBH, will come up with the robotic laser “cultivator” which will roam your fields 24/7 and zap any emerging weeds.  And keep score automatically as to what species it’s taking out. Already, a few laser experts have developed how to detect and destroy female mosquitoes in flight with laser beams. No other insects are harmed. (The link is to a YouTube video of the laser instrument.)

We look forward to the data age in agriculture. Hopefully it will eclipse the age of toxic chemicals in our food, soil and water. I remember Lane Palmer’s first speech as the new editor of Farm Journal in 1968: He said he intended to pursue the “Chemicalization of American Agriculture.” And he did, retiring in 1986. Lane appointed me Managing Editor to replace himself. The drive to write about the benefits of Treflan and Amiben and all the others was just beginning. 

It will be fascinating to watch what happens next.

Published just after the Blood Moon, September 27, 2015 by Jerry Carlson