Recently I enjoyed listening to Max Brooks’ interview on NPR with Fresh Air host Terry Gross. Max is the son of comedy genius Mel Brooks and noted actress Anne Bancroft, she of the iconic Mrs. Robinson role in “The Graduate” – an Oscar winning box office smash of 1967, and the breakout role of Dustin Hoffman’s career.
Max is an accomplished writer and creator in his own right – having written a popular series of books on the zombie phenomenon, including “The Zombie Survival Guide”. Brooks has also tried his hand at acting in a handful of films including, “To Be Or Not To Be” and some TV series such as “Pacific Blue” and “7th Heaven”.
Recently, he has written a book, “Minecraft: The Island”, which fleshes out the various storylines of the video game hit, “Minecraft”. He answered Ms. Gross’ obvious question about what it was like to grow up with Mel Brooks as your dad.
Being a major fan of Mel Brooks, I was intrigued to learn that there is a very intense and focused side of Brooks when he is not in performance mode. He, it turns out, is a very stable, disciplined and old school type of family man. Max says of his father Mel, in the interview:
“My father was home every night at 7 o’clock with my mother and having dinner … which I think set the tone for my life, in that my wife and I have dinner with our child at home at a certain time every day. What I did get from my father was stability. And I’m very grateful for that because, as a lot of my Gen Xer colleagues will tell you, their baby-boomer parents were not home, were out partying, were getting divorce after divorce, were coming home with new girlfriends and saying, “Hey, this is your new mom, I think?”
But it was something else in the interview which sparked my curiosity to learn more about Max.
It turns out that he was invited to give a series of lectures at the U.S. Naval War College, which caught my attention, because Max has no background of service in the military. So the question that popped into my mind was, “what would a guy who writes zombie books and does animation voiceovers, have to offer to an audience that is focused on gaming war scenarios?”
The answer is two-fold. Brooks, whose father fought against Hitler in WWII, did participate in an Army R.O.T.C. program in college. But even more amazing is an example Brooks provided of the kind of macro scenario evaluations that obsessive futurists like himself can conjure, that can impact our nation’s ability to fend off threats that may not precisely involve actual combat – what he terms, “geo-strategic concerns”.
The particular example involved Monsanto. He points out that Monsanto entered into a proposed $66 Billion merger with the German pharma and chemical behemoth, Bayer A.G. in 2016. Monsanto would be folded into their corporate structure under the wing of their CropScience division.
It was part of a pattern of Bayer purchasing the licensing of crop seed companies on an international scale. How this turns out to be part of a concern of war gaming at the Modern War Institute is a fascinating narrative that sets off alarm bells on a number of fronts.
The Federal Trade Commission, earlier this year, approved ChemChina’s purchase for $43 billion of Sygenta, the Swiss-based world leader in advanced insecticides, herbicides, and other crop-protection products and the No. 3 producer of seeds.
The cover story on the ChemChina acquisition is that China, has historically had a national sense of insecurity over the ability to feed its citizens, especially in light of the disastrous famines, the most recent being its worst, when from 1959 to 1961 – 34 million Chinese died of starvation. China today, stockpiles 50 percent of its consumption of corn, rice and wheat. Realizing the impracticality of that, the government decided it would be practical to bring in outside expertise.
Enter the Sygenta acquisition. The Chinese are, to say the least – skittish about GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds and crops. Sygenta has the research science assets to produce pest resistant crops without introducing genes that are not native to the plant’s genetic code.
“To make a corn plant more drought tolerant, you can modify genes in the plant without having to put a different gene in,” Syngenta CEO Erik Fyrwald, an American who ran DuPont’s seed and agrochemicals business from 2003 to 2008, explains. “That’s very exciting science.”
This is a cutting edge approach called hybridizing. Fortune magazine’s Geoff Colvin sums up the ostensible purpose behind the Sygenta purchase, “Thus China’s new strategy for food security includes controlling its global supply chain from beginning to end, and the chain begins with seeds.” Keep in mind the term “food security” because we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Beside Sygenta and ChemChina and the Bayer / Monsanto deal, Dow Chemical and DuPont Chemical have a deal in the works that would make the combined firms worth $130 Billion. The global consolidation that these deals in the aggregate will produce, would place about 50% of the foundational elements of food production – seeds and defenses against pestilence, under the control of just three conglomerates.
The implications of all this, are staggering to consider. Keep in mind that while China maintains massive grain reserves, the United States and most of its allies maintain little to nothing in the way of such strategic reserves.
Getting back to China. China is on a buying spree – purchasing American and European companies, seemingly with wild abandon. They currently have an offer on the table to purchase Fiat-Chrysler from the Italians outright.
Max Brooks raises the specter of another possible acquisition some years in the future. Bayer liked the Monsanto deal because with it, they acquired about 70 percent of the patents that provide herbicide tolerance to row crops. The Bayer / Monsanto deal would make it the world’s largest vegetable seed provider.
Mr. Brooks acknowledges that we have little directly to be concerned about with having our allies, the Germans (oh how 70 years changes the landscape) own the ag technology our domestic farming industry is so dependent on. But, he raises the question – what if the Chinese were to approach Bayer with an offer that their shareholders simply could not refuse? Brooks told Ms. Gross that, “so theoretically now, china could blackmail us with food, the same way that OPEC blackmailed us with oil.”
Max Brooks is not a conspiracy nut or an alarmist. He’s a thinker and a strategist. Perhaps we need to question our lawmakers why they are not examining these acquisitions with more of the long term view of a war planning strategist.
Here’s the podcast of the full interview: