Disrupting the Food Conversation with Vance Crowe of Monsanto
Food is changing, and if we’re to feed the world sustainably, all the stakeholders need to talk. Vance Crowe is director of millennial engagement for Monsanto, where he brings life experiences with the Peace Corps in Africa, ecotourism cruise ships, and the World Bank to bear to help Monsanto engage with a generation demanding sustainable food for all.
What’s the thread that ties together all your experiences?
As a member of the millennial generation, we were told over and over we could be anything we wanted to be. That’s the downside, too, you have to decide what you want to do.
Like a lot of millennials, I was always looking for where I could make the biggest difference. Today I’m helping everyone understand the science, technology and economics behind how we feed the planet.
Why engage millennials?
For a long time, Monsanto talked to farmers and investors well. We didn’t talk directly consumers because we felt that the farmers and scientists would do that outreach.
Now we’re trying to build up a culture of really listening to and engaging with everyone in the food value chain—whether they’re a direct customer or not. I look for people who have shared interests to Monsanto and look for how to foster a dialogue; millennials are at the forefront of a lot of change.
What’s innovative in what you do?
Most people don’t realize how much of a positive impact advanced agriculture is having on things like climate change. For example, all the way back when the Egyptians first started breaking up the soil to plant seeds, humans have been releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
What we do with precision AgTech and biotechnology that allows us to keep weeds under control without having to plow the entire field every year is more innovative than anything humanity could have ever imagined in the thousands of years since agriculture started.
Tell us about the picture you sent for use with this story—what’s interesting to you about it?
This is me delivering a keynote address to the Kansas Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference. I spend a lot of time traveling around the country talking with farmers and scientists to help them understand the public’s concerns about food and the environment.
What prepared you for what you’re doing now?
I’ve been very fortunate to have jobs that allow me to cross paths with people from all walks of life. In college I made money working on a paving crew with first generation Latino immigrants, who taught me Spanish and a work ethic about supporting family.
On the ship, I worked with longshoremen where mechanization was threatening their jobs. In the Peace Corps, it was living with subsistence farmers where if the seed they planted didn’t grow, they wouldn’t eat.
At the World Bank, it was politicians and professionals all trying to make their way in a knowledge economy. I learned that at any level, we’re all doing the best we can, trying to provide the best future for our families and communities.
Who’s a person in your past that helped you become who you are?
Pete Scotese, who’s 95 and is the chairman emeritus of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. My dad lived in Pete’s place when he came back from his Peace Corps experience in Peru, and Pete acted like a grandparent and mentor. He continued that mentoring with me and hundreds of other people.
He taught me that there’s no such thing as 99% integrity—you either have it or you don’t. That guides me today in everything I do.
Who are your favorite artists and authors?
Rachel Laudan, a food historian, who looks into how food has been processed and eaten over time. The French didn’t always eat croissants, they ate peasant food, with low nutritional value for a very long time.
Despite our nostalgic memory, romanticizing the past makes us long for a time that didn’t exist. Also Matt Ridley, I’m reading his book The Evolution of Everything. He has this amazing way of understanding and responding to criticism of his ideas so that everyone feels better having grappled with an idea in a new way.
What’s your go-to tool for the tough stuff—those that don’t get what you’re doing and why?
With each person I meet, I can’t get jaded by delivering canned responses. I have to listen to their excitement and how they got to their own point of view or we’ll never be able to relate.
None of us can know everything and since so much of my work is based on communicating, I have to constantly check my pride at the door, because as much as I want others to be open to new ideas, I have to be equally as open to changing my way of thinking.
If time and money were not a factor, what would you spend your time doing?
I’d be doing this. Figuring out how to out-compete the fear and misinformation that holds us back from choosing the evidenced-based answers, this is what I’ll do the rest of my life.
How can people follow you (twitter, blog, events, etc.)?
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @VanceCrowe and I am open to coming to a lot of places to join conversations about food, agriculture and the environment.