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Why the Climate Corporation Sold Itself to Monsanto (newyorker.com)
42 points by kunle on Nov 11, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments



So why is Monsanto genetically modifying plants? In their propaganda, they say "to be resistive." They don't say to what, or they mention everything but the main goal: to make their patented plants resistive to herbicides, the chemicals that kill all other plants, herbicides made by Monsanto: http://www.monsanto.com/products/pages/agricultural-herbicid...

Then they sell the farmers the seeds and the herbicides. Moreover, "More than 80% of US corn and more than 90% of soybeans planted each year are attributable to Monsanto and monopoly comes to mind."

http://www.gmeducation.org/latest-news/p207220-the%20monsant...

They also "control 95 percent of the market for insect and herbicide resistant cotton traits."

http://www.triplepundit.com/2009/11/the-monopoly-named-monsa...


Bt-Corn is resistive to insects and has nothing to do with herbicides. The goal is to not require as many pesticides.

Also, Roundup is no longer under patent protections (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roundup_(herbicide)), so farmers can buy roundup from a variety of sources.


Also, accq stated (my emphasis):

> their patented plants

Levering patent law to deny farmers the right to manage their own seed corn is akin to privatizing water tables or charging for oxygen. Sure, it's a great business model, but it's also immoral, evil and hard to see as something that brings us as a global collective to a better place.

From the letter:

> Humans have genetically engineered seeds for 11,000 years, primarily through seed breeding, where we “got rid of” the traits we didn’t want and introduced the traits we did.

That doesn't mean that it's a good idea to do so, without a lot of thought towards the common good. We're down a few hundred species of corns that can be used to make flour -- and among the problems resulting for that is that we don't have as many hardy species that can grow in subarctic regions. Another problem of this "natural" monoculture is vulnerability to insects, pests and diseases.

GMO, in and of itself, isn't evil -- it may be dangerous (messing with biotopes is a risky business) -- and leaving it up to a for-profit multinational seems like an extraordinarily bad idea.


Relatively recently, almost all of the corn grown in the US was about 3 from one of 3 common "immortal" varieties (~40/50 years ago.) The amount of seed diversity that have been introduced by this breeding is actually substantial, Monsanto is more or less combing the earth for diverse varieties of corn.


> Relatively recently, almost all of the corn grown in the US was about > 3 from one of 3 common "immortal" varieties (~40/50 years ago.)

I'm not sure what you're trying to say, I suspect a typo? (I gather the gist is that there used to be roughly three species of grain in the US, in the past 50 years -- down from what was introduced with the colonization some four hundred years ago (note, I'm not being snarky about the colonization, but AFAIK there didn't "use" to be any grain grown in most of what is the US today (not sure about California (old Mexico))).

Note, I said corn in my original post (which I gather means the same in Scottish English, as it does in the Norwegian (almost) homonym) -- I meant grain.

> The amount of seed diversity that have been introduced by this breeding is actually substantial,

I thought Monsato generally sold Roundup. Are you saying they've increased the variety of corn (or grain) that is grown in the US substantially (and how much of that is patent encumbered)?

> Monsanto is more or less combing the earth for diverse varieties of corn.

Sure they are. And they patent it (which is a failing on so many governmental and international levels I find it painful to think about -- I'm all for cataloguing species and genes, but granting patent on something you literally found -- that's even worse than software patents).

Now, if all they did was donate some to the world seed bank, and allow everyone to share in their (non gmo) discoveries -- I'd have no problem. But the idea that you might be committing a felony by planting a carrot you bought at the market is revolting.


Yep, that was supposed to be

Sorry, late night! That first line was supposed to say:

> Relatively recently, almost all of the corn grown in the US was from about of 3 the common "immortal" varieties (~40/50 years ago.)

Not 3 types of grain, 3 types of corn. People have been aggressively breeding seed for a long time. Monsanto has offices all over the world and tries to bring the best varieties of corn and breed them into a number of different high performing lines. I know Monsanto breeders feel like the genetic diversity argument is a little silly because they think they introduce a lot of genetic diversity.

>Sure they are. And they patent it (which is a failing on so many governmental and international levels I find it painful to think about -- I'm all for cataloguing species and genes, but granting patent on something you literally found -- that's even worse than software patents).

Typically what's patented is the GMOs, not the corn that is bred traditionally (which is where > 50% of Monsanto's R&D budget goes to.)

>Now, if all they did was donate some to the world seed bank, and allow everyone to share in their (non gmo) discoveries -- I'd have no problem. But the idea that you might be committing a felony by planting a carrot you bought at the market is revolting.

I agree. To my knowledge, it's only been farmers who had an agreement with Monsanto and violated that who have been sued. See the Schmeiser/Monsanto case for an example.


What agreement did Schmeiser have with Monsanto? He never interacted with Monsanto to get the seeds, right? He intentionally collected and replanted them, but that didn't involve any interaction with Monsanto, either. I guess he purchased roundup from them. Does that involve some agreement? Or are you saying there was an implicit agreement because he chose to live in a country with patent laws he should have known he was violating? It does seem what he did was illegal given our patent system (regardless of whether it should be), but your wording seems to imply more than that.


Not being under patent protection makes glyphosate (originally patented for Roundup) even more present everywhere.


Not to mention why patent the pesticide if you can patent the seed that's resistant to the pesticide? Especially when your granted the ability to enforce that patent against "future generations".


They're primarily a seed company. Most of the products they have in the pipeline are based on generating resistances to various crop diseases/insects. They try to do this in a variety of ways. GMOs are relatively more expensive then breeding, so that generally tends to be the method of last resort when they can't find a natural resistance to breed in.

The scientists I also talked to mentioned a 30% overall reduction in herbicide used with round up ready plants. That could definitely be propaganda, and if anyone has any hard facts I can ask anonymously at our weekly meeting and hopefully get answers from our executive team.


> Most of the products they have in the pipeline are based on generating resistances to various crop diseases/insects. They try to do this in a variety of ways.

"In the pipeline" as in "the stuff that they still don't sell." They'll get better, eventually. Until then, they lobby for the laws like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farmer_Assurance_Provision

Commonly referred to as the “Monsanto Protection Act” where "even if a court were to determine that a particular product might be harmful to human beings or harmful to the environment, the Department of Agriculture could not stop the production of that product once it is in the ground."


That's very much not what that law says at all actually. The wikipedia link you pointed to explains it by saying:

"If a biotech crop had already been approved (or deregulated) by the USDA and a court reversed that approval, the provision directed the Secretary of Agriculture to grant temporary deregulation status at the request of a grower or seed producer, to allow growers to continue the cultivation of the crop while legal challenges to the safety of those crops would still be underway.[7]"

If a farmer has made an investment in a crop, it has had regulatory approval by the USDA, and the Secretary of Agriculture believes that the crop which has been overturned by the lower courts is not actually a threat, then they may continue production during interim court proceedings. That seems reasonable to me.


There's been some great reporting recently on this at Grist: GMOs and Insecticides: http://grist.org/food/in-the-insecticide-wars-gmos-have-so-f... GMOs and Herbicides: http://grist.org/food/roundup-ready-aim-spray-how-gm-crops-l...


The first problem in this field is to find information sources that are not involved in GMO biz - this is especially true for scientists.

It is a repeating marketing pattern to claim "scientists" are "pro gmo" - but many scientists are not pro gmo, nor "anti" gmo, they just do some research in this field and some of them come to results that are not validating monsanto or gmo industry claims.

see e.g. http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/15156-ove...

It is not easy nowadays to do independent research, as the gmo companies are controlling the knowledge market heavily and there is a very high chance that you will be attacked and even lose your fundings or your job if your research might be interpreted as beeing "anti-gmo", no matter what your personal intentions about gmo are - this happened several times.

The "gmos are bad / good" discussion, however, becomes irrelevant looking at the business model of gmo companies - it is much easier to judge from that point of view.


>you will be attacked and even lose your fundings or your job if your research might be interpreted as beeing "anti-gmo", no matter what your personal intentions about gmo are - this happened several times.

Source? I'm not saying you're lying, but this statement seems made up.


There are many sources, but you might get a good overview on this issue watching the documentary "Science under attack": http://www.denkmal-film.com/cms/index.php?page=presse-9


>So why is Monsanto genetically modifying plants?

To date Monsanto has genetically modified plants to create products that save money for their customers: farmers. GMOs are the fastest agricultural technology adopted in history (by acreage).


They don't create products that save money, they create products that improve yields in the short term and thus increase revenues in the short term, which is quite different. Though I suppose there are likely some labor savings also.


"improve yields" is another myth. This is just marketing blah.


downvoting me does not change facts.


This is wrong. Actually costs for farmers are higher.

http://earthopensource.org/index.php/reports/gmo-myths-and-t...


So why do they buy them?


Because they are more profitable.


I found this remarkably unpersuasive -- one irrelevant factoid after another.

Tellingly, the word "glyphosate" does not appear in it. And the part about the Monsanto Protection Act -- yes, I know that's not its official title -- is just a gem:

protecting [farmers] from emerging state propositions that aren’t based on science or research

... because we've assumed the conclusion, that there couldn't be objections to GMOs that are based on science or research.

I understand that GMOs have to be evaluated individually -- GMO technology per se is not necessarily dangerous. That said, I think there's sufficient evidence of the toxicity of glyphosate -- and that it remains in food grown with it -- that I strongly prefer not to eat such foods.

Also -- we're talking about our food supply. Doesn't it stand to reason that the burden of proof should be on those who claim the resulting foods are safe, rather than on those who claim they are dangerous?


Indeed. I have absolutely no idea why this is on HN. The man's rant gives absolutely no impression that he understands the criticism of Monsanto - it's just 2655 words of absolute meaninglessness.

I particularly liked the bit where he said "but people called Google evil!". Yeah. Yeah, they did, dude. Still do.


Is it true the Monsanto's approach is threatening the genetic diversity [1] as @e12e mentioned?

If it's true, we're going to rely on a much smaller gene pool for food production in next decades, which will cause severe genetic information loss and more vulnerability to new crop diseases. Another potato famine disaster but in global scale?

Do we have any measure to protect the gene pool? Do we need something like Gene Tax to curb the genetic convergence? I've no idea how Carbon Tax helps solving the global warming issue, but it seems a good idea to invest some money to protect those 'useless' genes and make all reserved natural seeds open for public access.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_diversity


This is exactly the biggest problem that comes with commercial GMO plants. GMO companies are massively buying smaller seed producers and are actively reducing the food genpool, they are clearly out to control the global seed market - from a business perspective this absolutely makes sense.

For future generations this is a total catastrophe - reducing the available food genpool is is the maximal possible damage you could apply to the human kind.

This is not a theoretical scenario - india has lost big parts of it´s genpool for many food plants since the indian government is pushing gmo company products. The results are a complete disaster today, but this is just a foretaste what will happen on a global scale in a few years. Especially Africa, now beeing invaded by mega-industrial agro-projects backed by hedgefonds, will be hurt massively in the coming years.

Local seeds are of immeasurable value - it is conserved knowledge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of years that is deleted forever, when a variety disappears. This are not "failed experiments of nature" that vanish not able to survive the test of life - instead we are actively eradicating very good functioning and over a very long time optimized varieties, just because of some short-term experiment, that usually fails, and was only motivated by short-term profit-think.

GMOs are not "evil" or "good" - it´s the extremely short-sighted and brutally enforced business-model that translates the totally stupid short-term profit-think into very destructive consequences for global biodiversity.


"From Galileo to Servetus to Mendel to Einstein. Revolutionary science has always incited visceral hatred on a mass scale."

Okay I'm done here


"Allow me to set your mind at ease with regards to potentially questionable judgement by comparing myself to some of the greatest thinkers of all-time."

Honestly, I don't care what this guy does with his company, but it seems like a PR effort to salvage whatever reputation the Climate Company had built up before this acquisition by Monsanto.


To be fair - he was comparing Monsanto's technology to Mendel/Einstein, not himself. I think GMO crops can fairly be described as revolutionary tech.


... via a letter intended to be an internal communication? That seems a bit round-about.


I'm not claiming that this was some sort of nefarious plan.

It seems like this sort of PR effort might be even more important internally than externally. Presumably there are some portion of employees that are also emotionally invested in the "grand mission" beyond just being a job and interesting work. In that situation, releasing the "internal communication" just a freebie.


The letter is internal and intended to pump the team up about the acquisition (at least, that's how I read it). No surprise there is hyperbolic language. I'm not sure that's a good reason to stop reading.

Internal communications are always really interesting in that they provide some kind of window into the concerns of leadership — the line about family members ... or _recruiters_ ... reaching out to swipe people away from the "most evil company in the world" stood out to me.


You forgot Josef Mengele.

I mean, talking about Monsanto and all, that would be a more apt analogy.


"In addition to “reading your emails” [when google introduced gmail, and funded it with ad-sense], Google was accused of storing all your email for the Federal government to read, and Google now CONTROLED ALL YOUR INFORMATION."

Well, thankfully, that never happened!


I definitely LOL'ed at that. David's has been working pretty hard on the acquisition the last few months and may not have been watching the news lately...

On the other hand, that should be proof that no marketing/PR person touched the email, I guess?


What I have read (and granted, that's in main stream news) are two things 1) the unsure long term effect of the particular techniques Monsanto use 2) the forcing of farmers to use the products they make. For 2) there seem to be laws passed (in EU recently) for farmers to only allow Monsanto (and a handful of other vendors) their seeds; they cannot use their own seeds anymore.

Is that correct? Because 1) is a choice (IF 2 is not true that is); for instance I grow my own vegetables and fruit year round with my own seeds (by now) so I don't particularly care about 1) unless it would jump to my plants. I'm not sure what the chance is of that as all my neighbors for miles and miles around use their own seeds.

But if 2) is, even slightly, true then they should just boycot / eradicate this company and all Climate Corp employees should leave this instant imho. That's why I think it cannot be true or at least not the total truth; who would allow that to happen? So I guess it's a media-enhanced dark side which happens but is not common? I cannot really find objective info on that.


> 2) there seem to be laws passed (in EU recently) for farmers to only allow Monsanto (and a handful of other vendors) their seeds; they cannot use their own seeds anymore.

I would love to see some references for this.

I know that there is a list of seeds that can be used for commercial purposes. That means that people cannot sell "heritage seeds". One way to work around that is to set up a subscription club. Membership gets you a newsletter and membership of the club. And they send free heritage seeds every month.

http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl/

Until now the rules have been relaxed for amateur seeds so other places just sell the seed direct. http://www.realseeds.co.uk/

Here's some information about the EU law, and about proposed changes to it. The source is obviously biased. http://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedlaw2.html


The big problem with charging money for the approval of all kinds of seeds, is that it makes large scale commercial seeds a lot more attractive than smaller scale "heritage" seeds, and that creates a drive towards monoculture.

If you ask me, projects to preserve seed diversity should be subsidized, rather than being charges the same costs as big commercial seeds.


To the best of my knowledge farmers can buy whatever seeds they want - it's an open market. If you want to learn more about GMOs there has been balanced, good faith reporting recently by Nathanael Johnson at Grist (not exactly a pro-big Ag news outlet): http://grist.org/author/nathanael-johnson/


I'm a climate corp. employee who's happy to answer questions. I'd prefer to remain anonymous, but would generally be cool with answering questions.

Edit: I'll be back around tomorrow to answer questions.


Were you unhappy about the acquisition by Monsanto before you read the letter, and did you feel differently having read it? If so, or not, why?


A) Were you unhappy about the acquisition by Monsanto before you read the letter,

Yes, and to some extent I still am unhappy about the acquisition. They have a pretty terrible reputation and that's definitely causes an impact.

> and did you feel differently having read it? If so, or not, why?

No, not really. All of the eng/product people went to Monsanto and got a chance to ask very blunt questions. There are definitely some things they do that I don't agree with (see their lobbying in seattle to oppose the anti-GMO labeling effort,) but overall I'm convinced that they're a vital part of the current food supply.


> Edit: I'll be back around tomorrow to answer questions. "2 hours ago " (other questions asked "1 hour ago")

Seeing as how you replied to my other post "38 minutes" ago, I suspect you're picking and choosing questions to reply to.

I hope I'm wrong, but it looks like it, as these other questions here have been left without comment.


I actually couldn't get to sleep and then hit the comment limit.

Still around and happy to answer questions.


Do you see Friedberg as a visionary leader? Do you believe the work you are doing is changing the world for the better?


> Do you see Friedberg as a visionary leader?

No, not particularly honestly. He seems like a smart guy, a great salesman/CEO, and really really dedicated. I wouldn't say he has a visionary leader feel to be honest. He already made a good chunk of money w/Google. He's not in it for the money.

> Do you believe the work you are doing is changing the world for the better?

Yes, 40% of the world works in agriculture. In most of the world, bad weather can destroy your entire livelihood. If we can keep farmers from going bankrupt because of bad weather, I'd be okay with that being my life's work. I will likely get to directly improve the life of > a billion people, that's pretty amazing.


Whelp, I predict he will come to regret is decision. Either that or this is just a PR farce and it wasn't really about climate idealism to being with.

Any company based around 'owning' biological progeny into subsequent generations on the basis of parents' genetics is too offensive and bile inducing to have a good side...

If the company is successful I sure can't imagine this turning out any other way than Monsanto holding farmers hostage over the climate and weather just like they do now over seeds.


They apparently have a > 90% approval rating amongst US Farmers for what it's worth. They're generally seen to be a solid investment by most farmers. This is what I'm told from internal statistics, so if it's entirely possible it's a bald face lie.

If you have statistics to the contrary I'd love to bring it up our company meeting and get back to you, personally or here.

Disclosure: I'm a Climate Corp Employee.


Hey, Kool-Aid has a 90% approval rating among Kool-Aid drinkers...

When water problems start becoming more widespread, problems with much of the current system will be more obvious, so to be fair this is an amazing hedge for Monsanto.

I'm also conflating to some extent high-yield strains with GM strains, but the overlap is pretty huge so consider it minor.


I've been told that a lot of their work on drought resistance is having good preliminary impacts on reducing water consumption. They've also purchased us at least in part because of the work we're doing on Climate Pro which is a tool to provide agricultural management for things like irrigation.

But again, give me studies and specific questions and I'll have answers from either the CEO or COO by Friday.


Holding farmers hostage over the weather? I think the weather does a fine job of holding farmers hostage already.

It's hard to see how providing more information about weather and corresponding farming best practices (i.e., what Climate does) could be used to hold anybody hostage. If you don't like their products, you can simply not buy them next year. They are certainly not actively manipulating the weather (which is barely effective, anyways).

Disclaimer: I work for Climate.


I don't think he meant to cast any doubt on the work Climate has been doing so far. I think he's worries about what Climate might become in the hands of Monsanto.

I hope Friedberg is correct in Climate remaining independent in its operation.


Seed companies have been 'owning biological progeny' since the invention of hybrid seeds in the 1920s.


With hybrid seeds you don't need arbitrary patent ownership to necessitate a producer, you naturally need companies operating in a near-perfect-competition situation to produce the seed as successive generations become genetically erratic and no longer cleanly express the 'hybrid vigor' if you attempt to reuse the seed.

In fact much of these kinds of researches and developments originated in public/land grant universities and were part of a the ROI of public research and were successfully spread and marketed without single entity IP ownership (specialized hybridizing just isn't patentable).

So your comment and claim is pretty much completely false.


I might not be following you, but it sounded like you were worried about farmers losing the right to save seeds due to Monsanto patents. Seed saving largely ended with hybrid seeds in the 20s. Is there something else you were trying to say?


To be clear: it ended for maize, because that's the only crop routinely grown with hybrid seeds. Seed saving is still done for everything else.


Australia grows a lot of hybrid wheat, and it's sought after on the global market due to it's higher than usual protein content.


Seed saving never ended. A lot of farmers all over the world still rely on it.


The letter makes the same mistake it points out in Monsanto critics: lack of sources. Basically, his argument amounts to: "I'm a good and smart person. Trust me." But his misrepresentation of the Galileo situation doesn't instill much trust in me.

It is true that a lot of companies get called "evil" when the reality is a lot more complex and nuanced, but that observation by itself doesn't automatically make Monsanto one of the good guys.

It is interesting that Monsanto apparently got rid of their chemical arm. Does that mean they don't rely on the sale of Roundup anymore?

The claim that we've been using genetic engineering for centuries is one I see a lot, and it's false. As he points out immediately after, we have not been introducing totally new genes that never existed before. We've been breeding existing organisms and selecting for existing traits. It is the fact that it's a much slower process that also makes it safer; we get to see the effects of this breeding on a small scale before they get introduced on a wide scale. Monsanto's GMOs on the other hand often have a lot of unintended and unexpected side effects once released into existing ecosystems. (Like pests developing resistance to pesticides because those pesticides are not permanently available.)

I understands he wants to continue to believe he's a good person while still taking that billion dollars, but I need a bit more evidence before I'm willing to accept Monsanto as a positive influence.


Now be honest, how many here wouldn't dance on the grave of their morality, just like Friedberg, for the sweet sum of $1 billion?

Be honest.


There is more complexity to the GMO / Monsanto issue than Food, Inc (and sadly the HN demographic) give credit. If you'd like to dig deeper there has been very balanced, good faith reporting from Nathanael Johnson on the topic: http://grist.org/author/nathanael-johnson/


Let's not conflate the two issues here:

1) GMO or anti-GMO

2) the question of Monsanto's evilness (which has really nothing to do with the science of GMO's but their heavy-handed tactics and lobbying).

Personally, I am on the side of the scientific consensus when it comes to GMO.

But that doesn't mean that that gets Monsanto off the hook for being one of the vilest organizations on the planet right now.


The problem with his letter (and those against Monsanto) is that it is a huge corp with a long history. It (as far as 'it' can be applied, Ship of Theseus territory here.) has done terrible things that anyone can cherry pick to make it the most evil company in the world; but it does great things that people can cherry pick to make it seem great!

So people arguing about The Climate Corporation joining Monsanto will never agree because they each have their picked samples and there is no "Evil formulae" for determining the overall evilness of a company.

Having said that, the fact that he is being offered $1 Billion before knowing about the company does make one wonder how much research he did into the dark sides of Monsanto of if he avoided / rationalized it to support his bias, even if subconciously. He comes out overall positive it is easy for people to accuse him of not researching the bad things.


To get knowledge about some basic facts please read at least

http://earthopensource.org/index.php/reports/gmo-myths-and-t...

if you want to understand better, take some time and dig into http://gmwatch.org


I am always surprised to see that the stance toward Monsanto is so different in US than in France. In France, we have quite often TV documentaries about ecology and monsanto. Almost everybody in France associates Monsanto with devil.


The same company which makes RoundUP tolerant seeds also suing farmers in the US if they use their own seeds not bought from Monsanto also made Agent Orange pesticide agent during the Vietnam war.

http://www.ibtimes.com/monsanto-named-2013s-most-evil-corpor...


> The same company which makes RoundUP tolerant seeds also suing farmers in the US if they use their own seeds not bought from Monsanto

Yeah, that actually never happened and is a persistent urban myth.




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