How Monsanto Should Be Innovating
Posted by Plish on November 14, 2013
It seems that every week someone mentions something about Monsanto, and it’s very seldom good. Doesn’t matter if it’s Facebook, or Twitter, or the news, someone is saying something. A simple perusal of a Google Search of “Monsanto” can give one the impression that the company is a litigious giant that doesn’t care about the well-being of people or the environment and instead is only concerned with making money. Monsanto even has the dubious distinction of being named “The Most Evil Corporation” of 2013 in a Natural News poll.
Never the less, as far as corporations go, Monsanto is doing very well. In spite of the bad press and mounting negative public opinion over GMO‘s, Monsanto continues to grow, innovating, patenting and licensing the agricultural technologies they develop.
Even though Monsanto licenses its technologies to other seed companies, many in the public perceive Monsanto as taking advantage of farmers as opposed to helping them. After all, companies generally don’t sue their customers (even if any money won in a case does go to youth scholarship programs.)
To be fair, they really can’t be blamed for protecting their intellectual property. When a company invests millions of dollars a day in research, if it allowed people to use their technology in an unlicensed manner, the business could not sustain itself.
But, there is another way…
(Farmers are) the support system of the world’s economy, working day in and day out to feed, clothe and provide energy for our world. – Monsanto’s About Us webpage
There are literally millions and millions of farmers in the world. Small farms, large farms and everything in-between. Ultimately, everyone wants the same thing: Improved, sustainable yields that don’t hurt people or the environment, but yet enable farmers to make a living.
Farmers are passionate about their calling. Each one is looking for an edge, for a way to get the most for the least amount of investment in time and money. Each one is dealing with local microclimates, soil conditions, and pests; not to mention the economic climates. They seek out new information, they build and utilize support networks, they experiment. They are entrepreneurs. (Check out Farm Journal for just a tiny sample of the varied topics farmers digest)
Monsanto, as mentioned before, spends over 2 million dollars a day on research and patents are only good for 20 years (and some of the patents they’re defending now are expiring within the next few years.) They employ 22,000 people worldwide. No matter how much they invest in R&D, or how many people they hire, they can never account for all the variables farmers around the world deal with.
So what should they do?
Monsanto needs to begin empowering open source farming. Instead of relying on the innovation that goes on inside their research labs (some of which are actually outside 😉 ), they need to start giving farmers the tools and expertise to improve yields, to create better networks. They need to become the company that guides and empowers innovative farming, not just be the producer of consumable/licensed technologies.
Think of what can happen when farmers all over the world are given the tools to improve their farming and, perhaps even more important, given the means for sharing these advances with other farmers and yes, with Monsanto. That’s how Monsanto makes money off of this.
Monsanto can still patent technologies if they desire. But Monsanto has scale on its side, and they can sell ‘ready-made’ open source solutions to those that would rather pay a premium as opposed to doing it themselves. Simultaneously they can create a reward structure for the farmers that feed the Monsanto research and development pipeline,(and as open source companies like DIYDrones have shown, these don’t need to be monetary.)
This approach, provided that Monsanto wants to stay in the agriculture business, is not really optional. It’s becoming easier and easier for people to communicate and share irrespective of what companies are doing, or for that matter, irrespective of what the laws are. The music industry has been changed forever by the digitalization and sharing of music. The software industry likewise. And more recently, 3D printing has cracked the door open to behind-the-scenes firearm manufacturing. In all these scenarios, it doesn’t really matter what the laws are because, in these contexts, they are largely unenforceable.
The world is changing, and its changing in ways that should make Monsanto nervous.
Brian Love of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (and ex-Monsanto employee), has been working with the IIT Institute of design exploring how web-based platforms can be used to enable the exchange of seed science expertise for the benefit of farmers and their communities.
Then there’s Sumant Kumar of Darveshpura village in Northern India, who set a new world record for paddy rice production with a staggering 22.4 tons per hectare yield. Typically farmers get 4 tons; with fertilizers, 8. He didn’t use excessive fertilizers and used no chemical protection. This technique, originally called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), has been used by others with equal success and now it’s being tried on other crops with similar results.
These disruptive innovations, spawned outside the labs of large corporations, have the potential to eventually cut into Monsanto’s, and other similar businesses’, profits. It is no longer a question of ‘if’ such innovations will impact agricultural practices, but ‘when’. Monsanto only need be reminded of companies like Kodak and Brother. Both were giants in their industries but they failed to adjust to the times; they failed to notice the river of ubiquitous technologies eroding the soil out from under their corporate foundations.
What strategy should Monsanto follow?
There are multiple open source business strategies being utilized today. Monsanto doesn’t have to use an existing strategy, but for its own good, and the good of the world, it needs to get as creative with becoming an empowering, agricultural partner as it’s been a powerful corporate juggernaut.