It started with a post at Gawker slamming my pal Mo Rocca for hosting a panel for Conde Nast sponsored by Monsanto (“Here’s How Conde Nast and Mo Rocca Are Making Propaganda for Monsanto”). Well, it turned out Mo was not, in fact, hosting the panel — Gawker would note that the next day — but in the meantime, the story had begun this way:
Genetically modified agribusiness and pesticide conglomerate Monsanto has a reputation (rightly or wrongly) as one of the most evil companies in America. Here’s one way they’re working on their PR: by enlisting the help of Conde Nast, and Mo Rocca, and some desperate charities.
There were a lot of links in the story — who has time to follow the links in a story? — but the “wrongly” link piqued my interest and led to the New Yorker.
The New Yorker has fact checkers and stuff, so — no knock on Gawker — I was curious to see what case could be made in such a leftie venue that Monsanto was wrongly cast as evil. (The New Yorker, conspiracy theorists please note, is owned by Conde Nast.)
So I started reading this, by the estimable Michael Specter, which basically just offers up a letter from a young centi-millionaire to his employees — perhaps the most interesting letter I’ve ever read not to have come out of, say, a Birmingham jail.
I commend it to you for your weekend reading. And, while a subscription to the New Yorker is not free, as Gawker is, I commend that to you as well.
NOVEMBER 4, 2013
Why the Climate Corporation Sold Itself to Monsanto
BY MICHAEL SPECTER
For this week’s issue of the magazine, I wrote about the Climate Corporation, a company that is trying to deploy a vast and growing trove of data to help farmers cope with the increasingly severe fluctuations in weather caused by climate change, in much the way that Google organizes and presents the world’s information. The New York Times, citing a forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also noted this weekend that warming trends will pose an increased risk to the world’s food supply in the coming decades.
While I was reporting the piece, David Friedberg, the Climate Corporation’s thirty-three-year-old chief executive, told me that Monsanto had agreed to purchase the company for about a billion dollars. The deal was finalized last week. The Climate Corporation, which has nearly two hundred scientists trying to make sense of fifty terabytes of weather data every day, will continue to operate as an independent unit, but I was surprised at Friedberg’s decision, because many food activists consider Monsanto to be the definitively evil corporation. Friedberg was not prepared for the response from his family, friends, and colleagues. (“When I shared the news with my dad recently, his first reaction was, ‘Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?’”)
Friedberg is deeply methodical; his research led him to believe that the common view of Monsanto was simply wrong. He wrote a letter to everyone who works for the Climate Corporation explaining the decision, and he has agreed to let me post it here. It is frank and explicit: “I am not the kind of person that would take easily to partnering with a company that ‘poisons the world’s food system,’ lays waste to the land, puts farmers out of business, or creates a monoculture that threatens the global food supply,” he writes.
It is not possible to assert publicly that Monsanto is anything other than venal without being accused of being a sellout, a fraud, or worse. If Friedberg doesn’t know that, he will soon learn, as I did many years ago. No matter what you think you know about Monsanto, Friedberg’s letter is worth reading. He is an ambitious man and his goals are not minor: “The people of The Climate Corporation are going to lead the world to revolutionary solutions to historic problems,” he writes. I have no idea if he will succeed, but for the sake of us all, I certainly hope so.
He sent me the following version of his letter:
I understand there are a lot of questions emerging about the Monsanto partnership. I’m certain a number of you have been feeling assaulted by friends and family about “joining up with Monsanto” and that you feel ill-equipped to respond to claims and accusations made about the company.
For some of us, this is a very difficult time. I understand and want to try and address concerns head-on and make sure everyone feels like they have the appropriate context and information needed to feel informed, comfortable, and hopefully, excited about the unique opportunity in front of us.
When I shared the news with my dad recently, his first reaction was “Monsanto?! The most evil company in the world?! I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?” Now, my Dad has a bit of a dramatic flare (might be where I get it from), generally tends towards reading “liberal” blogs as his primary news source, and likes to quickly jump to big hefty conclusions, but I was not prepared for the sort of reaction I got from him. In fact, it hurt to hear this from my close family—especially after all of the work needed to get to this point and with so much excitement about what was ahead; to be chastised for this exciting decision was really really hard. So, I started sending my dad information, talked to him at length about GMOs, the history and business practices of Monsanto, and the future we could now enable, and, ultimately, he understood my perspective. In fact, he actually started sharing my enthusiasm, telling some of his friends over the past few days how they have it all wrong. It definitely took me a while to get him to that point—I had many months of research behind me to prepare for those conversations and the conversations themselves were lengthy and detailed.
Now I know a lot of you don’t yet feel that well informed, making it very difficult for YOU to respond to the family member or recruiter that emails you with the awful subject line “Do you REALLY want to work at the MOST EVIL COMPANY IN THE WORLD??!!”.
Like I said the other night when we announced the news, I too knew very little about Monsanto when we first met with them. I knew they were a big agribusiness and had some reputation issues, which followed my reading of various websites and blogs. As I dug in, it all changed for me. And I found myself shifting from saying we’d never sell our company to being more excited than I’ve ever been about the impact possible through our work.
In 2004, I was working at Google when we announced Gmail. At the time, it was an extraordinary revolution—1GB of free email! Prior to that, I think you had to pay lots of money for anything 10MB or more. To make this service free, Google used its automated advertising system (AdSense) to identify keywords from the content in an email and provide keyword-triggered ads on the right side of the page. There was outrage over this “evil” technology. In addition to “reading your emails”, Google was accused of storing all your email for the Federal government to read, and Google now CONTROLLED ALL YOUR INFORMATION. This blossomed into a nuclear mushroom cloud of evil-calling. A silent sadness fell over everyone for creating something they never thought of as “evil”—they were creating a great free product for the world that could make email as accessible as web browsing, helping billions of people around the world communicate more easily with one another. Over time, as the benefits of the service were better understood, the pundits learned about the complicated technology that enabled Gmail and its advertising system, and more people fell in love with its utility, the noise died down.
Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth.
Generally, things that are big or revolutionary are the easiest targets. I think this is because, ultimately, people can feel out of control in the face of very new and very big things. This is especially true for new technologies delivered on a large scale. As Arthur C. Clarke commented “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Meaning it can’t really be understood at first. Done at scale, something that can’t really be understood can be very scary. And the reaction is to call it evil. And find reasons to frame it as evil.
For a long time, Google was evil. Sometimes, Apple is evil. Sometimes, Microsoft is evil. Over the course of history, both Republicans and Democrats have been labeled evil by the populous. Nowadays, Monsanto is frequently labeled as evil. As has been the case throughout history, with new and revolutionary science, Monsanto has delivered hugely impactful technology and people don’t understand the science, see it working at scale, and don’t mind it being labeled as evil. And so, a mushroom cloud of evil sentiment has emerged.
From Galileo to Servetus to Mendel to Einstein. Revolutionary science has always incited visceral hatred on a mass scale. Galileo told us that the Bible was wrong and he was chastised for denying the word of God. Mendel was engaged in the devil’s work. And Einstein “invented a weapon that killed millions” because of his original theories of physics.
It’s a lot easier for a reaction to something new to turn into repeated statements of evil, supported by anecdote and innuendo, and eventually turn into a meme, ultimately becoming the commonplace perception. Melissa McEwen is a blogger who writes about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating. She recently penned an article titled “Just Kale Me: How your Kale habit is slowly destroying your health and the world”. She chastised Kale (a very healthy vegetable) as being deadly. She used innuendo, extrapolation, unscientific references, out-of-context facts and statements to make her point. Her “fake” article spread like wildfire and for about a day was considered “truth” by many “healthy living” bloggers and readers alike. The very next day, she edited the article and admitted to the truth—she was trying to make a point that it is so easy to demonize something without clear logic and fact, and still get everyone to believe you and repeat the bottom line. Her declaration was that when you read “an article that demonizes a food, think about whether or not there are citations and follow those citations”. Her article struck me as very poignant, in light of all the GMO research I had been doing in the prior weeks. There are so many articles (some are repeatedly published) that are wholly inaccurate, based in half-science, extrapolation, innuendo, and out-of-context rhetoric. When I did my own research—to the source and in the science—I was amazed at how far these inaccurate statements had gone and how wrong so many people were, thinking they were right because they repeated the same things others did.
Perhaps Monsanto should have adopted the mantra that Paul Bucheit so cleverly and timely introduced at Google in 2000—“don’t be evil”. Just saying that was their mantra has helped Google countless times avoid the evil designation that so many people have tried to hurl their way over the years. It has worked.
Did you know: Google sues more of its customers each year than Monsanto does? Google spends 3 times as much as Monsanto on Federal lobbying? There are more ex-Googlers in the Obama administration than there are ex-Monsanto employees?
I could go on. But a lot of the “bad things” being said about Monsanto are simple truths about the nature of doing business at scale. On the list of top lobbyists on payroll in DC, Monsanto is not even in the top 50. The “Monsanto Protection Act” is actually called the “Farmer Assurance Provision” and was drafted and written by a number of farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers, and others, to help ensure farmers aren’t denied the right to grow crops that are approved and regulated by the Federal agencies, protecting them from emerging state propositions that aren’t based on science or research.
It seems to me that innuendo, anecdotal evidence, and out of context facts are used to support a simple statement—“the company is evil”—and are rooted in a lack of understanding and fear of the unknown.
In high school I started and was the President of the environmental club—we named it “Students H.O.P.E. (Students Healing Our Planet Earth)”. We ran campaigns, attended rallies, cleaned the beach, organized Earth Day events, and we even had our own green t-shirt that my friend designed.
I am also a vegetarian. I’ve never eaten chicken, fish, or meat in my life. My parents are pseudo-hippies and always taught me that we should try and avoid harming the world and do as much good as possible. Since I was very young, I’ve tried my best. When the first Toyota Prius came out in 2003, I ordered it months before I could even test drive the car. At home, I compost, recycle, and avoid bottled water.
I am not the kind of person that would take easily to partnering with a company that “poison’s the world’s food system”, lays waste to the land, puts farmers out of business, or creates a monoculture that threatens the global food supply. I make decisions as a scientist. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved science, and believe that truth in the world comes from science. So, I have allowed myself to be informed by science and fact as I have explored this partnership opportunity for The Climate Corporation.
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. Modern advancements in science have allowed for those genetic advances to be much more organized and specific, rather than haphazard, over time. The notion of introducing specific genes into specific places to create a protein that did not evolve through a natural process has been a breakthrough—one that is hard to understand and comprehend, but powerful in its implications. And through science, we can study the efficacy and risks of this technology. I have read the science—it was not a short and easy effort. And I think Monsanto has created amazing and safe technology. It took me a while to get there. You should take your time, learn about their science, and I’m certain you will get you there too.
As for the history of their company, their business practices, and their future, I suggest you take your time to fully understand these matters—they are not simple and can’t be summarized in a simple sentence or two.
The Monsanto of today is a conglomerate of seed companies that were acquired in the 1990s and 2000s, bundled together, and spun out as a separate company. This new agriculture company was formed to incorporate new science and technology in the development of seed, providing farmers with the ability to create more food with less land, water, and chemicals than had been previously possible.
Monsanto executives debated a new name for that new company, and determined it would cost them $40 million to develop a new brand. They decided to save the money and, in my opinion, made the biggest mistake they ever made. The old Monsanto chemical business would be renamed Pharmacia and was sold to Pfizer and the new seed company would be named Monsanto and spun out as a “new Monsanto”, to this day tarnished by legacy products of an entirely different chemicals business (now owned by Pfizer).
Now, there are some other really important tactical questions that I want to answer directly about our future as “part of Monsanto”. We are going to continue to operate and exist as The Climate Corporation, as an independently run business, owned by Monsanto. We had 100+ shareholders, now we have 1. We used to have a Board, now we don’t. We are not going to be “integrated” into Monsanto. We will not be forcibly “integrated” into IFS or FieldScripts or any of those other products/groups. (We may, at some point, choose on our own to propose some partnerships with other groups at Monsanto). No one will “work for Monsanto”—everyone still works for The Climate Corporation, with the same roles, titles, and responsibilities as you do today. Monsanto does not “set our policy”—what we do, how we operate, and our culture are still our decisions. I am a member of the executive committee at Monsanto, so I can help lobby for resources and data that we may want.
If at any point, you aren’t doing work that you’re passionate about, or we’re operating in a way that doesn’t meet your model or standards, then you can very simply walk away. It is my job to make sure that doesn’t happen. It is my job to keep our culture intact, our team happy, and our work exciting and impactful. I wouldn’t do this if that weren’t the plan.
When the Monsanto team first showed up here, they said “what you have here is really extraordinary; we could really mess this up,” which is exactly why they’ve agreed to let us run independently. They made it really clear that THEY WANT TO LEARN FROM US.
We have an opportunity to be a model for the broader Monsanto organization about how we operate. Our DNA is what makes us who we are, and it might frame for the bigger Monsanto who they want to be in the future. Let’s take advantage of that—the biggest agribusiness in the world can now be modeled by us. That is why this opportunity is so exciting. There is no bigger platform to impact the world. Our work can dramatically change how most people do what they do, to survive and thrive.
I will ensure we get the resources we need to exceed our wildest aspirations—from developing our own satellite and radar systems to opening new engineering offices to launching in new markets. We should aim to be aggressive, impactful, and revolutionary in our science.
Now, none of your questions or concerns will feel fully addressed in 24 hours, and maybe not even for a few weeks. This is going to be a learning process (you don’t learn an entire subject on the first day of class). Those of us that have had some time with Monsanto over the past few months believe that this is the most exciting thing possible for our company and our work. You should not be beholden to rhetoric (on either side of the debate) in determining what it is you want to do with your life, with whom, and how. We are still The Climate Corporation, but you should inform yourself with facts, knowledge, and an understanding of the company that now owns our shares.
The people of The Climate Corporation are going to lead the world to revolutionary solutions to historic problems. This partnership enables us with capital, data, and reach we would not have had on our own.
Let us not be deterred or distracted by misinformation, fear, or anecdote. Let us not be unduly influenced by unfair social pressure. Be strong. Let science and fact guide you. Learn about our opportunity. Learn about our partnership. Take your time.
Eventually, you can inform; but make sure you take the time to first be informed.
We only live one life and should make sure that the work we are engaged in and the way we work delivers to us what we want from our short time here. I believe that is what I am doing and know that all of you will eventually feel the same.
[Michael Specter has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998, and has written frequently about AIDS, T.B., and malaria in the developing world, as well as about agricultural biotechnology, avian influenza, the world’s diminishing freshwater resources, and synthetic biology. ]
A letter like that I find more thoughtful than the Gawker post that led me to it. Have a great weekend!
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