Oh, the world is too crowded! Oh, people will starve! (Won’t one problem solve the other?) Oh, there’s nothing to be done!
Once home to his father’s hardscrabble cattle-and-crop farm, Stine has, without attracting any widespread notice, developed some of the most valuable agricultural products on Earth here. With more than 900 patents, Stine sells his coveted soybean and corn seed genetics to agri-giants like Monsanto and Syngenta, nabbing estimated annual sales of more than $1 billion with margins in excess of 10%. Along with his four children, Stine owns almost 100%.
Based in Adel, Iowa (pop. 4,000), the dozen or so companies under Stine’s umbrella form an unlikely titan at the heart of the market, directly or indirectly generating revenues from almost 50 million acres of crops in the U.S. each year.
Stine Seed does business with all of the heavyweights and has for more than three decades, primarily because it has something everybody else needs: the best-performing soybean seeds in the business. Through plant breeding, a roughly 10,000-year-old technique that’s not unlike creating Thoroughbred horses or show dogs, Stine has been perfecting the genetic makeup of soybean seeds–primarily used in animal feed and to produce vegetable oils–since the 1960s.
Today 60% of all U.S. soybean acreage is planted using genetics developed by Stine’s companies, which also have a strong presence in South America and other international markets. FORBES estimates that Stine’s company–which, among other things, also breeds corn genetics, creates plant traits in its biotech lab and has a small but growing commercial seed sales operation–is worth nearly $3 billion.
While rivals scoff, he now thinks he can double the world’s output of corn, the most popular crop on Earth. By breeding corn seeds genetically predisposed to thrive when planted in high densities, he thinks he can supercharge the engine generating animal feed, biofuels and food for the whole planet. “We’re going to be able to double corn yields very easily,” says Stine.
Stine flipped the conventional wisdom on its head. He began breeding corn to thrive at higher planting density: shorter plants with smaller tassels and more upright leaves that attract more sunlight. A leaner, more efficient plant. After breeding many descendants of the seeds with that genetic makeup, the company has developed corn that can be planted in much narrower rows–12 inches or even pairs of rows 8 inches apart–increasing the number of plants per acre to as much as 80,000. And, of ultimate importance, substantially increasing a farmer’s harvest.
Not everyone is convinced, but I wouldn’t bet against his record. Anyway, compare this small town, midwesterner with our bi-coastal commander in chief. The closest Obama has ever come to agriculture is to smoke two (or more?) of its products. His is the conventional ignorance (it’s hardly wisdom) that we’re cooking and stripping the earth of its resources. The left claims to love science, but creates the weirdest of boogiemen around GMO crops. Never mind that we’ve GMO-ed pretty much every edible plant and domesticated animal for millennia—just not in a lab—the application of science and technology to food production (aka farming) has them running for the hills. So, maybe they’ll never grow this corn in Iowa or Nebraska, but if they know what’s good for them, they’ll be growing it in Zimbabwe and other fertile nations of Africa.
Some people throw up their hands and wonder what will become of the world. Others put their hands to work and head out to the fields (or labs) to fill silos and tummies around the world. (And get filthy rich doing so!)
PS: My own garden is a smaller organic affair of heirloom tomatoes, cukes for pickling, string beans, and, in the perennial triumph of hope over experience, beets. But I can afford to d*ck around. If I get only two decent beets out of a row, I can just nip down to Whole Foods to buy more. Where does Africa go when their crop yields fall short?