Monsanto exec sees need for all types of foods from many sources

by Eric Schroeder
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NEW YORK — Monsanto Co. has attracted more attention than it anticipated, and perhaps more than it deserves, in the debate over bioengineering, said Hugh Grant, chairman and chief executive officer, in a May 29 presentation at the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in New York.

“We are a seed company,” Mr. Grant said. “We produce seeds that somebody else grows and harvests, and somebody else buys and trucks, and somebody else processes, and then somebody else buys that processed material and makes branded food that ends up in a chill cabinet. And somehow or other, in that very long, disaggregated chain, we have caught more attention than we anticipated; I would argue, than we deserve.”

That perception, fair or not, means Monsanto must do a better job of explaining to people what the company does, Mr. Grant said. Doing so, though, requires “heavy lifting,” because not everyone understands that food starts in a field and not in a chill cabinet.

“For us specifically, but for the industry in general, we have to do a much better job of telling an untold story,” he said.

Another area of concern and one that Mr. Grant said worries him more, is “a complete gap on the understanding, on the crushing demand and how much more stuff we are going to have to grow.”

“I think that’s going to be a piece of this conversation, increasingly with consumers,” he explained. “And if you are shopping every weekend, you don’t know and you don’t care. But I worry more about our ability to satisfy the demand curve than I do with some of the bumps that we are facing at the moment.”

Asked specifically about the implications of Whole Foods Market’s March announcement that by 2018 all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate whether they contain bioengineered organisms, Mr. Grant responded that he’s “very pragmatic.”

“I think we’re going to look back in five years and say, how on earth did we get into such a heated discussion?” he said. “This has been set up in such a confrontational way, and I think the reality of this is we’re going to need all types of food from as many sources as we can find. And one end of this is organic … mainly organic produce, and we sell seed into that segment. On the other end it’s going to be production agriculture, and at the moment it is pitted as an either/or, and it’s almost like tomatoes versus soybeans. There’s no equilibrium in this.

“I think we will eventually reach a point where you’re going to have price points in this, you’re going to have to produce 500 million bushels more stuff. And we are going to need all hands on deck. So I think if you take the long view, and we are planning on a 10-year horizon, we’re going to need all this and more. It’s the ‘and more’ that worries me.”
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