In a windowless
basement room decorated with photographs of farmers clutching freshly
harvested vegetables, three polo-shirt-and-slacks-clad Monsanto
executives, all men, wait for a special lunch. A server arrives and
sets in front of each a caprese-like salad—tomatoes, mozzarella, basil,
lettuce—and one of the execs, David Stark, rolls his desk chair forward,
raises a fork dramatically, and skewers a leaf. He takes a big, showy
bite. The other two men, Robb Fraley and Kenny Avery, also tuck in. The
room fills with loud, intent, wet chewing sounds.
Eventually, Stark looks up. “Nice crisp texture, which people like, and a pretty good taste,” he says.
“It’s probably better than what I get out of Schnucks,” Fraley
responds. He’s talking about a grocery chain local to St. Louis, where
Monsanto is headquartered. Avery seems happy; he just keeps eating.
The men poke, prod, and chew the next course with even more vigor:
salmon with a relish of red, yellow, and orange bell pepper and a side
of broccoli. “The lettuce is my favorite,” Stark says afterward. Fraley
concludes that the pepper “changes the game if you think about fresh
Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does. The company
whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionized the way we grow
food—for better or worse. Activists revile it for such mustache-twirling
practices as suing farmers who regrow licensed seeds or filling the
world with Roundup-resistant superweeds. Then there’s Monsanto’s
reputation—scorned by some, celebrated by others—as the foremost
purveyor of genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soybeans
with DNA edited in from elsewhere, designed to have qualities nature
didn’t quite think of.
So it’s not particularly surprising that the company is introducing
novel strains of familiar food crops, invented at Monsanto and endowed
by their creators with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually
see in the produce section. The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than
romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in
miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has
three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps
boost antioxidant levels. Stark’s department, the global trade division,
came up with all of them.