Let us say it plainly: Monsanto is almost surely the most vilified company on the planet. To its diehard critics it embodies all that is wrong with big, industrial agriculture—the corporatization of farming, the decline of smallholders, the excessive use of chemicals, a lack of transparency, and, of course, the big one: the entry of genetically modified organisms into our food supply. The tri-letter acronym GMO has become a four-letter word to millions of people, from earnest middle-schoolers to purist Whole Foods shoppers. ... The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we must double the current level of food production to adequately feed a population predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050—and we’ll have to do it on less land (much of it scarce of water), using fewer resources. ... Historically, Monsanto has tried to increase farm yields through advancements in seed technology alone. Grant calls this “hubris”: “Twenty years ago,” he says, “we thought biotech was going to be the panacea.” In the past half-decade the company has begun to look beyond seed for answers. ... Breeding better seed has contributed to a more than 1% annual increase in corn yields, experts say. Biologists, for instance, have created corn plants that can be clustered closer together, meaning there can be more stalks per acre. Still, that yearly growth rate would leave the U.S. average below 200 bushels by the end of the decade—far from Hula’s corn bonanza and nowhere near enough to feed the planet. ... Combined, those seeds now fill some 400 million acres around the globe. That’s a fraction of the nearly 4 billion acres of land the UN estimates is being cultivated. Climate Corp.’s chief technology officer Mark Young doubts that that Monsanto could ever get to a billion-acre footprint just by being a seed company, “but as a decision-based company, it seems to have a really good shot.” Monsanto, for example, doesn’t sell grape seeds, but it could some day advise grape growers on how to increase their yields.
Under a microscope, a varroa mite is a monster: armored and hairy, with eight legs and one piercing, sucking mouthpart, primordial in its horror. Since the parasite arrived in the United States from Asia in 1987, the practice of tending bees has grown immeasurably harder. Beekeepers must use harsh chemicals in their hives to kill the mites or risk losing most of their bees within two to three years. About a third of the nation’s honeybees have died each winter over the past decade, and Hayes, an apiary scientist, believes the varroa mite is a major factor in this catastrophe. ... the Internet was abuzz with theories about CCD. It offered a litany of dystopian ecological conspiracies: cell phones interfering with bee navigation, or genetically modified corn syrup, or neonicotinoid pesticides. But no one really knew. ... Traditional pesticides act like chemical backhoes, killing their targets (beetles, weeds, viruses) but harming good things along the way (beneficial insects, birds, fish, humans). RNAi, in theory, works instead like a set of tweezers, plucking its victims with exquisite specificity by clicking into sequences of genetic code unique to that organism.