Technology & Agriculture: ‘Farmers’ primary concern is what-is, not what-if’

Monsanto’s global commercial business head refutes monopoly allegations.

Written by Harish Damodaran | New Delhi | Updated: September 17, 2015 8:31 am
Michael J Frank Global Commercial Business Head, Monsanto. Michael J Frank Global Commercial Business Head, Monsanto.

Imagine a firm that enjoys a dominant global position in seeds and plant biotechnology, agrochemicals, and even farm extension and weather-soil-crop data analytics. The very thought of Monsanto being that firm, and the resulting control it may have over farmers’ lives, has earned the $15.9 billion US multinational the epithet ‘Monsatan’ amongst NGOs and techno-sceptics worldwide.

These fears are, however, dismissed by Michael J Frank, who heads the St Louis, Missouri-headquartered company’s global commercial row crop, crop protection and vegetable businesses.

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Monsanto’s seeds, including own and those incorporating its proprietary GMO (genetically modified organism) traits, are currently planted in about 400 million acres. “This is just over 10 per cent of the world’s total agricultural land of 3.7 billion acres. The entire frame and base information (on which allegations of control over farmers’ lives are being made) is wrong,” Frank said in an interview to The Indian Express here.

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Concerns regarding Monsanto’s dominance over the global agricultural science landscape were voiced most recently, when it made a $ 47-billion bid for Syngenta, which was called off late last month after the Swiss firm rebuffed the offer. The takeover, had it succeeded, would have merged the world’s largest agrochemical company (Syngenta) with the leader in seeds and genomics (Monsanto).

Monsanto’s current revenues from agrochemicals — crop protection products, in industry parlance — are below that of Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF and Dow AgroSciences. Nor does it have a robust product pipeline based on patented molecules such as Rynaxypyr (‘Coragen’) and Cyazypyr (‘Benevia’) belonging to DuPont. The Syngenta deal would have changed this, though many believe it would have encountered regulatory challenges in most markets from Brazil and China to Europe — not to speak of opposition from NGOs and other anti-monopoly crusaders.

But according to Frank, concerns of an agri-science global monopoly getting created are baseless: “If we would have acquired Syngenta, we would have sold their seed business and only kept their crop protection business. So, we wouldn’t have got any larger in seed; we just would have got larger in crop protection”.

Moreover, no company can ever establish a stranglehold over farmers. “Farmers are very astute. They will buy only what creates value for them. We get rewarded only if we invent something new and it creates new value. If what we invent doesn’t help farmers to become more productive, then our business model wouldn’t work,” he stated.

Frank claimed that for farmers, the primary concern was not “what if”. Unlike the NGOs and others, they only talk of “what is” in front of them — be it pests or drought: “The one common element you hear from farmers everywhere is that they want better tools, better seeds and better information, in order to produce more and deal with what-is. Even when it had to do with trying to acquire Syngenta, the response from farmers has largely been that we need innovation and we need companies like Monsanto to be successful.”

Monsanto’s footprint in India currently extends to almost 320 lakh (32 million) acres. That includes 271 lakh acres under its proprietary ‘Bollgard’ Bt cotton, 25 lakh acres under ‘Dekalb’ and other branded hybrid corn seeds, and 22 lakh acres under ‘Seminis’ vegetable seeds. Hybrids incorporating the Bollgard traits account for more than 90 per cent of the country’s cotton area. Monsanto also has an estimated 25 per cent share of the Indian hybrid corn seeds market and 10 per cent in vegetable seeds.

Of late, Monsanto has also been focussing on agriculture extension: advising farmers on practices to get the best out of their land. The company already has 3.8 million farmers in India registered on its Monsanto Farm AgVisory Service (MFAS) platform, along with data capturing individual details like name, mobile number, village, age, educational qualifications, landholding size, soil type, irrigation status, individual crop acreages and sowing dates.

“We believe that data science and helping farmers understand how to use inputs more precisely — telling them what or how much fertiliser and seeds to apply, what planting density to sow, what crop protection products to use — will be an important integration tool in the future. Companies that can bring all these will provide lot of value to farmers,” Frank pointed out.

MFAS is a free mobile-based crop advisory service. Those registered on the platform receive pre-recorded voice-based crop advisories in local language. Farmers planting rabi corn, for instance, get one such mobile alert every 4-5 days, right from the time of sowing around early November to harvesting in mid-February. Besides, the company operates a toll-free call centre, which received some 3.8 lakh inbound calls from farmers in 2014-15 seeking cropping advise.

The other new focus, Frank said, was on development of microbial-based products, which involves use of naturally-occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. Last year, Monsanto formed an alliance with a Danish firm, Novozymes, to identify beneficial microbes in the soil that can be used as inoculants on seeds to promote plant growth through better nitrogen fixation or taking up nutrients.

While there are regulatory uncertainties with regard to commercialisation of GMOs, the company sees scope for growth even through the conventional breeding route in corn and vegetable hybrids and emerging areas such as microbials and biological solutions.

Shilpa Divekar Nirula, CEO-India Region, Monsanto Holdings Pvt Ltd, said that the company is planning to launch in the next few months a microbial product called ‘Bolt’. “Basically, it is used to treat the seed before sowing, which helps the crop to grow more vigorously and develop greener and broader leaves, translating into higher yields. Although, we are trying it first in corn, we see applications on other crops too,” she added.

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