Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 26, 2003:
* Resistance to New Foods Has Been the Norm
* Molding Public Opinion Through Science Communication
* Societal Issues and Public Attitudes Towards GM Foods
* GM Food Crops' Contribution to Human Nutrition and Food Quality
* Biotechnology for Africa?
* New Educational Site on African Ag Biotechnology
* Best Bananas Long Way From Coming to Fruition
* Sustainability and the Commons
* Global Food Security: Challenges and Policies
* Monsanto's Vision of Biotech
Resistance to New Foods Has Been the Norm
- Whybiotech.com. References at
'History reveals many common foods were originally feared and banned'
That some people would question the safety of novel foods -- like food
developed using biotechnology -- is nothing new. "Even some of the most
ubiquitous products endured centuries of persecution," wrote Calestous
Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at the
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in a September 2003
article in Economic Perspectives. "Claims about the promise of new
technology are at times greeted with skepticism, villification or outright
opposition -- often dominated by slander, innuendo and misinformation."
Coffee, for example, was outlawed or restricted in the past few hundred
years in Mecca, Cairo, Istanbul, England, Germany and Sweden. Others tried
to discredit the drink. "The body becomes a mere shadow of its former
self; it goes into a decline and dwindles away," wrote French doctors in
1674. "The heart and guts are so weakened that the drinker suffers
delusions, and the body receives such a shock that it is though it were
A century before, Catholic priests tried to ban coffee from the entire
Christian world, calling it "Satan's beverage." They argued it was a
Muslim drink that was unfit for Christians but Muslims didn't think much
of it, either.
In Mecca, the holy city of Islam, the viceroy and inspector of markets
actually did outlaw coffee and coffeehouses. 6 While health reasons were
often cited for the attacks on coffee, "the real reasons lay in part in
the role of coffeehouses in eroding his authority and offering alternative
sources of information on social affairs in his realm," wrote Juma.
Today, similar unfounded stories are being spread about biotechnology, he
says. "In addition to claims about the negative impact of GM foods on the
environment and human health, there are wild claims that associate GM
foods with maladies such as brain cancer and impotence as well as
behavioral changes. Some of these rumors are spread at the highest levels
of government in developing countries. While advocates of biotechnology
often tried to rely on the need for scientific accuracy, critics employ
rhetorical methods that are designed to invoke public fear and cast doubt
on the motives of the industry."
And fear -- both known and unknown -- can be difficult to overcome,
whether the arguments are based on facts or not. "It has been well
established that experts differ tremendously from the public in the way
they view and assess risk," wrote Barrie Craven and Christine Johnson in a
chapter titled "Politics, Policy, Poisoning and Food Scares" in the book
Fearing Food: Risk, Health and the Environment. "For example, on a list of
30 hazards, experts rated nuclear power generation at the lower end of the
scale (less risky), believing it to be approximately as dangerous as food
coloring and home appliances, and less dangerous than food preservatives,
riding bicycles and swimming. On the other hand, the public rated it at
the number one position (most dangerous of all)."
History is filled with other examples of new foods that were once widely
considered too unhealthy -- or even poisonous -- to eat. In North America,
the tomato was widely considered poisonous until 1820, when Colonel Robert
Gibbon publicly ate one on the courthouse steps in Salem, N.J. As a crowd
of 2,000 gathered to witness a suicide, Johnson declared, "The time will
come when this delicious scarlet apple . . . will form the foundation of a
great garden industry and will be enjoyed as an edible food."
Once the poison myth was dispelled, the tomato, which originated in the
Andes region of South America, began to catch on -- in North America and
in Europe. Today in the United States, the tomato ranks as the favorite
vegetable; the typical American consumes about 80 pounds per year.
The potato -- while not considered poisonous -- also had a long journey
before gaining acceptance by the general public. It, too, originated in
the Andes region of South America, where it was first cultivated by
pre-Columbian farmers some 7,000 years ago.11 In about 1570, Spanish
conquistadors brought the first potato back to Europe, where it was widely
Partly because of its strange shape and that it was grown below ground,
the potato was accused of causing a variety of diseases, including
leprosy, fever, tuberculosis and rickets. It wasn't until after a French
prisoner of war, who was captured by the Prussians in the Seven Years War
and fed a potato diet, returned to France and began spreading the word
about this nutrient-packed vegetable that potatoes became accepted.
While Juma said the scientific community can play an important role in
helping lead the debate over the value of foods developed using
biotechnology, ultimately, it will be improved biotech foods that do the
real convincing. Understanding the value of novel foods is what it took
for people to embrace coffee, tomatoes and potatoes.
"In the final analysis, it is the range of useful products available to
humanity from biotechnology that will settle the debate, not the hollow
pronouncements of advocates and critics," he wrote.
Molding Public Opinion Through Science Communication
- Shanthu Shantharam
The lamentations of the retiring plant technology chief of CSIRO Jim
Peacock hits the problem of GMO controversies right on the head. I have
been saying pretty much the same thing for more than a decade whenever I
had a chance to share my analysis of the problem.
The important question is who is responsible for letting the
anti-technology Luddites to steal the march? I think it is the scientific
community that constantly fails to appreciate the power of mass
communication and campaign tactics in this free and democratic world.
Scientific community does not still appreciate very much that as members
of the society and depending on the tax money of the public for research,
they have to take some trouble to communicate what they do to the public
in a language that public understands.
I have come to understand and appreciate the dynamics of societal forces
that influence the acceptance of science and technology working both in
the government and private industry. Communication is so powerful that it
can kill any given science and technology progress. One does not have to
have a long memory. Just look back and analyze the what RAFI did to the
GURTS technology by dubbing it the "terminator" technology. It died a
premature death and the biotech industry is scared of even talking about
it now. In my opinion, it was such a ingenious invention of some really
creative scientists that still could be used for some real beneficial
purposes, but that is not going to happen any time in the near future.
It is high time the scientific community pays special attention to the
importance of communication and take lead in shaping the public opinion.
Otherwise, the Luddites will step in by default as the nature abhors
vacuum. Things are beginning to improve in the US, and some in Europe.
But, the scientists of the developing world have even appalling record of
communication with their public. There is clearly a need for putting the
science and technology communication agenda on top of everything else.
The scientific world should recognize and reward those scientists who
struggle to communicate science to the general public.
Societal Issues and Public Attitudes Towards Genetically Modified Foods
- Lynn Frewer, Trends in Food Science and Technology, 2003, 14:5-8:319-332
Public perceptions and attitudes about emerging biosciences and other new
technologies are among the most important factors determining the
likelihood of the successful development and implementation of technology.
As well as considering the psychological determinants of people's
perceptions and attitudes, it is necessary to consider public trust in
institutions (both those concerned with regulatory matters and those
concerned with the strategic development of science). Failure to do so may
have a negative impact on genetic technology and its applications.
While it is important to develop best practice in science communication
about the risks and benefits of genetically modified food (GMF), this
alone will not result in public confidence. Rather, it is becoming
important to look at new ways to involve the public explicitly in the
debate about technology innovation and commercialization, and to rethink
the somewhat uneasy relationship between science and society.
Genetically Modified Food Crops and Their Contribution to Human Nutrition
and Food Quality
- Howarth E. Bouis, Bruce M. Chassy and James O. Ochanda, Trends in Food
Science and Technology, 2003, 14:5-8:191-209
This chapter discusses the potential of biotechnology to improve the
health and nutrition of consumers in developing countries. In the
relatively wealthy countries of Europe, North America and elsewhere,
consumers spend perhaps 10% of their income on food. For the most part
consumers in developed countries are free of classical nutrient
deficiencies, although over-consumption is a problem for some.
Also in relatively wealthy countries there is, in general, good access to
affordable medical care to meet health needs and most consumers in rich
countries have access to a relatively inexpensive supply of safe and
healthy food. In these settings, the possibility that biotechnology might
reduce the price of food or make food more beneficial to health is a
relatively minor concern. Rather, public debate about genetically modified
foods (GMFs) appears to have focused on the potential for harm to either
the environment or health without a clear definition of benefit to the
Biotechnology for Africa?
- Dominic Glover, Democratising Biotechnology: Genetically Modified Crops
in Developing Countries Briefing Series. Briefing 10. 2003. Brighton, UK:
Institute of Development Studies. ISBN 1 85864 487 9;
'Making biotechnology work for African agriculture would mean harnessing
the technology to address the socio-economic and agronomic constraints
faced by African smallholders'
Africa 'missed out' on the Green Revolution. In many parts of the
continent, agriculture faces complex agronomic
challenges that have proved difficult to address using conventional
breeding techniques. In some regions and crops, yields are declining. Many
African countries suffer from chronic hunger and recurrent food crises,
and rely on regular shipments of food aid. Against this background, some
argue that Africa needs to embrace the biotechnology revolution,
especially GM crops. Can biotechnology succeed where previous efforts have
Arguments in favour of biotechnology imply that GM crops can resolve the
problems facing poor farmers without addressing the complex and
intractable issues of poverty, land rights, lack of access to credit and
weak extension services. Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu has asserted
that GM crops are ideally suited to poor farmers because 'the technology
is in the seed'. In fact, however, the transgenic crops that are actually
on the market all require a package of expensive inputs and special
management practices, which pose special challenges and risks for poor
farmers. They also tend to be crops and traits designed for
industrialised, capital-intensive, temperate farming. This is primarily
because they have been developed by private firms for wealthy northern
markets (see Briefing 3).
Some, mainly large-scale commercial farmers, in countries such as
Argentina, Brazil, India and South Africa have adopted GM varieties of
maize, cotton and soya, even though GM traits have sometimes been
available only in
imported, rather than locally-adapted, varieties (see Briefing 9).
However, so-called ‘orphan’ crops and traits, which could be relevant to
subsistence and smallholder farmers, are being neglected. These include
food crops such as cassava, millet and sorghum, and traits such as drought
resistance, salt tolerance, and nutrient use efficiency.
So what has been the experience of GM crops in Africa to date? The box
here (below) outlines the case of Kenya.
GM Crops In Kenya
* The Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project involves
researchers from the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), with funding
from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The project aims
to develop Bt maize, resistant to the stem borer. Maize is grown on 90% of
Kenyan farms, and is an important source of food, income and employment.
Food shortages in Kenya are usually correlated with poor maize yields.
About 15% of harvest losses are attributed to stem borers.
* KARI is also involved in a collaborative project with Monsanto and the
private, not-for-profit International Service for the Acquisition of
Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) to develop transgenic virus-resistant
sweet-potato. A complex of plant viruses has contributed to a decline in
Kenyan sweet-potato production to less than half the global average yield
per hectare. Sweetpotato is an important staple food crop, grown
throughout large parts of Kenya.
Experience in these cases illustrates the importance of integrating GM
solutions with other options. Bt maize can only address one production
constraint and does not prevent other serious problems, such as plant
diseases and the striga weed. Many are also concerned about the food
safety of Bt maize. Virus-resistant sweet-potato is projected to boost
yields by up to 18%, but this can only be achieved if there is an
efficient system of extension and distribution to provide clean planting
material to farmers. At present this is lacking. In this respect, the
obstacles to the potential biotechnology revolution are the same as those
that stalled the Green Revolution in Africa.
There is also concern that the futuristic possibilities of genetic
engineering are diverting attention -- and resources -- from other
promising technologies (including modern biotechnological techniques such
as marker-assisted selection) that could prove more affordable and
appropriate for developing countries (see box over). These technologies
attract little attention from the private sector because, unlike
transgenic technologies, it is hard to capture exclusive benefits from
A Technology Options For African Smallholders
* In Kenya, tissue culture is being used to produce disease-free plantlets
for banana propagation. A tissue culture project, implemented by public
sector researchers at KARI and the Institute of Tropical and Subtropical
Crops (ITSC, South Africa), with funding from the ISAAA, has proved to be
an effective way of overcoming disease transfer problems on planting, at
least for the first generation of new plants. The project has also shown
the value of linking participatory methods, to help prioritise research,
with effective extension and distribution networks to facilitate take-up
* The West African Rice Development
Association (WARDA, a public international agricultural research centre in
Côte d’Ivoire) has used 'embryo rescue' to enable African and Asian
varieties of rice to cross-breed. The resulting ‘NEw RIce for AfriCA’
(NERICA) promises several advantages over conventional African varieties,
including earlier maturity, improved pest resistance, tolerance to drought
and acid soils, and greater height, making it easier to harvest by hand.
* A system of rice cultivation developed and practised in Madagascar
Riziculture Intensive', SRI) has shown sustained, significant improvements
in rice productivity, without new varieties or chemical inputs. The
system, which involves changes in agronomic practices from conventional
methods of rice cultivation, is time- rather than capital-intensive. SRI
also requires much less water than conventional methods and therefore
appears to be more suitable for drier rice areas.
Biotechnology for smallholders
Making biotechnology work for African agriculture means harnessing the
technology to address the socio-economic and agronomic constraints faced
by African smallholders, rather than relying on technologies developed for
other contexts. Unfortunately, the public research systems of many African
countries lack the independent capacity to supplement the shortcomings of
private sector-driven biotechnology. Although countries such as Kenya and
Zimbabwe have experienced rapid increases in qualified microbiologists,
most African countries lack experienced scientists, laboratories and
equipment to carry out biotechnology research or biosafety testing.
It is no surprise that in a country like Kenya, virtually all the
meaningful biotechnology research depends on donor funding or
public-private partnerships. Technologies are more likely to be
successfully adopted if laboratory researchers and the endusers are linked
together. This requires participatory methods to help define research
priorities, and effective extension to apply new technologies. This
approach has been applied to developing-country biotechnology programmes
in the past. For example, the Dutch-sponsored Special Programme on
Biotechnology operated in four countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Poor farmers were involved in the priority-setting process for the country
programmes, and identified technologies such as biopesticides and
biofertilisers, as well as transgenic traits.
In general, biotechnologies that are appropriate for smallholder farming
in Africa will be those which:
* are affordable and do not restrict the freedom of farmers to save and
exchange seeds; * are manageable and appropriate for small plots of land
in marginal areas; * are responsive to local livelihood contexts,
including patterns of labour availability; * are suitable for use with a
varied cropping system, including a number of different crops; *
prioritise traits such as drought tolerance, nutrient-use efficiency and
disease resistance, rather than traits like herbicide tolerance, which
require expensive inputs; * are suitable and acceptably safe for
introduction into the local ecosystem; and * are backed up by appropriate
support, such as access to credit, markets and extension services.
This briefing was written by Dominic Glover (IDS). It draws on papers 5,
20, 29, 31 (see publications list). These are available at:
www.ids.ac.uk/biotech ; Institute of Development Studies, University of
Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RE, UK.
New Educational Resource on African Agricultural Biotechnology
The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) announces the creation
of its new outeach website, http://www.africabiotech.com. The site
provides relevant and updated information on ag-biotech issues across
Africa to various stakeholders and also provides a forum for discussion on
Best Bananas Long Way From Coming to Fruition
- Cape Argus, December 23, 2003
If biotechnology is ever going to transform agriculture in Africa, you
wouldn't know it from the evidence on the ground today. A recent journey
through four African countries, and telephone interviews with people in
several more, turned up evidence of success only in South Africa. Here
commercial farmers and subsistence growers are turning to biotech crops,
and appear to be reaping economic gains.
But even in South Africa, the crops that have been successful were
developed in America, and have essentially trickled down. Projects are
under way across Africa to use genetic engineering to improve staple crops
on which tens of millions of poor people depend, such as cassava, cowpeas
and sweet potatoes. But after more than a decade of work, not a single
programme has led to government approval and release of a new variety.
Ugandan banana biologist WK Tushemereirwe hopes to change that. "I am in
the group that thinks biotechnology has a role to play in Africa's future,
particularly if it focuses on developing our indigenous crops, not
replacing them with new crops," he said.
Outside Kampala, scientists working in his unit are operating in in a new
government laboratory devoted to genetic engineering. Here, the advocates
of modern biotechnology aim to prove their claims about helping the poor.
Bananas are the world's fourth most important crop, after rice, corn and
wheat, based on the number of people who depend on them as a staple.
Starchy bananas, similar to plantains, are a vital food in Uganda and
throughout the tropics. But, as a result in part of growing trade links
that help spread plant diseases, bananas are under attack from pests, and
conventional efforts to fight them have been only partly successful.
With support from President Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan government
recently opened one of the most advanced biotech research laboratories in
Africa to work on improving the banana. But the work has only just begun.
Western agricultural companies have pledged to support other projects
scattered around Africa. Efforts in Kenya for a virus-resistant sweet
potato produced unpromising field test after a decade of work. Biotech
advocates said government approval of any improved African crop remained
at least three to five years away.
Some scientists said African farming faced more pressing needs. Hans
Herren, the director-general of the International Centre of Insect
Physiology and Ecology, said in a battle plan for solving Africa's
agricultural problems, biotechnology would certainly be included - but
well down the list. "First you need better agronomy, better fertiliser,
better crop management."
Sustainability and the Commons
- Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief, Science, Science, Vol. 302, No. 5652,
Dec, 12 2003, pp. 1961.
Thirty-five years ago, Science published a remarkable essay by Garret
Hardin entitled "Tragedy of the Commons." I knew Hardin at the time and
admired his paper, but had no idea whatsoever of the influence it and its
author would have on how we think about population and the environment.
That influence has spawned several successor strands. One, evident almost
immediately, was an enhanced concern about the impact of population growth
on resource utilization. The second was a delayed argument about how to
consider population growth in policy terms--an argument to which Hardin
later added combustible material with a piece called "Lifeboat Ethics"
that struck many as elitist or hard-hearted. The third, much later, is a
recent social science literature revising Hardin's hard choice (either a
coercive consensus to limit breeding or repressive government controls) by
showing that groups often evolve fair social arrangements that limit
exploitation and conserve shared resources.
The population/resource collision has only grown more important since
Hardin's Science essay. Earth's population then was about 3.5 billion; it
has since grown by a factor of nearly 2, to 6.3 billion. That growth,
amplified by global increases in affluence and the power of technology,
has brought escalating pressures on "common-pool" resources such as air,
fresh water, and ocean fisheries that are accessible to many potential
harvesters who can extract marginal personal benefits at a cost that is
low because all other harvesters share it. Decades of depletion of these
resources, whose status was explored in the past four issues of Science,
have led to new concerns and new terms: "sustainability" and
"sustainability science." The loss of value compels us to undertake more
careful analyses; first, of what values we actually take from nature's
resources, and second, of how science can contribute to maintaining such
We obtain value from our environment in various ways: We may use it for
timber or for hunting, we may enjoy it for various nonuse values such as
birdwatching, and we may extract pleasure from merely knowing that it's
there. In Man and Nature, perhaps the first environmental classic, George
Perkins Marsh provided a meticulous 19th-century account of what had
happened to the world's woods, waters, and fields. In Marsh one finds a
kind of outrage over environmental damage, but there is little of the
sense of wonder about nature that one finds in modern writers such as
Wallace Stegner. Marsh is all about use values, Stegner about nonuse. A
modern convergence defines sustainability as requiring that the average
welfare of the successor generation, with respect to the total of all
these values, be as high or higher than that of the current generation.
That begs some important questions. What about equity? Most, I think,
would insist that the condition of the majority of people, if not of
everybody, should either stay the same or improve. And what about history?
If welfare has been improving for several generations, is there a built-in
expectation that historical rates of improvement will continue? Our
welfare detectors, after all, are exquisitely sensitive to disparity.
Once we find agreement about what sustainability really means, we can ask
what science might contribute. It is surely encouraging that science is
focusing increasing attention on resource problems, but the success rate
is not high. At small scales, where science is applied in limited
societies where property rights can be made clear, there have been some
real winners, such as managed preserves that blend conservation objectives
with recreational values. But at large scales, ranging from ocean
fisheries to global climate, good science often fails the implementation
test because the transaction costs are too high or because political and
economic factors intervene. A recommended target stock size for managing a
marine fishery fails, although its stability makes it desirable, because
to harvesters it looks too large to leave alone. Models and climate
history tell us that global warming is likely to reach damaging levels,
but the cost of controlling carbon emissions is high and there is always
the mirage of a hydrogen economy.
The big question in the end is not whether science can help. Plainly it
could. Rather, it is whether scientific evidence can successfully overcome
social, economic, and political resistance. That was Hardin's big question
35 years ago, and it is now ours.
Global Food Security: Challenges and Policies
- Mark W. Rosegrant and Sarah A. Cline, Science, Vol. 302, No. 5652, Dec,
12 2003, pp. 1917-1919. (International Food Policy Research Institute,
Washington, DC). Full article and References at
Global food security will remain a worldwide concern for the next 50 years
and beyond. Recently, crop yield has fallen in many areas because of
declining investments in research and infrastructure, as well as
increasing water scarcity. Climate change and HIV/AIDS are also crucial
factors affecting food security in many regions. Although agroecological
approaches offer some promise for improving yields, food security in
developing countries could be substantially improved by increased
investment and policy reforms.
The ability of agriculture to support growing populations has been a
concern for generations and continues to be high on the global policy
agenda. The eradication of poverty and hunger was included as one of the
United Nations Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. One of the
targets of the Goals is to halve the proportion of people who suffer from
hunger between 1990 and 2015. Meeting this food security goal will be a
major challenge. Predictions of food security outcomes have been a part of
the policy landscape since Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of
Population of 1798. Over the past several decades, some experts have
expressed concern about the ability of agricultural production to keep up
with global food demands, whereas others have forecast that technological
advances or expansions of cultivated area would boost production
sufficiently to meet rising demands. So far, dire predictions of a global
food security catastrophe have been unfounded.
Nevertheless, crop yield growth has slowed in much of the world because of
declining investments in agricultural research, irrigation, and rural
infrastructure and increasing water scarcity. New challenges to food
security are posed by climate change and the morbidity and mortality of
human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome
(HIV/AIDS). Many studies predict that world food supply will not be
adversely affected by moderate climate change, by assuming farmers will
take adequate steps to adjust to climate change and that additional CO2
will increase yields.
Achieving food security needs policy and investment reforms on multiple
fronts, including human resources, agricultural research, rural
infrastructure, water resources, and farm- and community-based
agricultural and natural resources management. Progressive policy action
must not only increase agricultural production, but also boost incomes and
reduce poverty in rural areas where most of the poor live. If we take such
an approach, we can expect production between 1997 and 2050 to increase by
71% for cereals and by 131% for meats. A reduction in childhood
malnutrition would follow; the number of malnourished children would
decline from 33 million in 1997 to 16 million in 2050 in sub-Saharan
Africa, and from 85 million to 19 million in South Asia (Fig. 1).
In addition to being a primary source of crop and livestock improvement,
investment in agricultural research has high economic rates of return.
Three major yield-enhancing strategies include research to increase the
harvest index, plant biomass, and stress tolerance (particularly drought
resistance). For example, the hybrid "New Rice for Africa," which was bred
to grow in the uplands of West Africa, produces more than 50% more grain
than current varieties when cultivated in traditional rainfed systems
without fertilizer. Moreover, this variety matures 30 to 50 days earlier
than current varieties and has enhanced disease and drought tolerance. In
addition to conventional breeding, recent developments in nonconventional
breeding, such as marker-assisted selection and cell and tissue culture
techniques, could be employed for crops in developing countries, even if
these countries stop short of transgenic breeding. To date, however,
application of molecular biotechnology has been mostly limited to a small
number of traits of interest to commercial farmers, mainly developed by a
few global life science companies.
Although much of the science and many of the tools and intermediate
products of biotechnology are transferable to solve high-priority problems
in the tropics and subtropics, it is generally agreed that the private
sector will not invest sufficiently to make the needed adaptations in
these regions with limited market potential. Consequently, the public
sector will have to play a key role, much of it by accessing proprietary
tools and products from the private sector.
To implement agricultural innovation, we need collective action at the
local level, as well as the participation of government and
nongovernmental organizations that work at the community level. There have
been several successful programs, including those that use water
harvesting and conservation techniques. Another priority is participatory
plant breeding for yield increases in rainfed agrosystems, particularly in
dry and remote areas. Farmer participation can be used in the very early
stages of breed selection to help find crops suited to a multitude of
environments and farmer preferences. It may be the only feasible route for
crop breeding in remote regions, where a high level of crop diversity is
required within the same farm, or for minor crops that are neglected by
formal breeding programs.
Making substantial progress in improving food security will be difficult,
and it does mean reform of currently accepted agricultural practices.
However, innovations in agroecological approaches and crop breeding have
brought some documented successes. Together with investment in research
and water and transport infrastructure, we can make major improvements to
global food security, especially for the rural poor.
Monsanto's Vision of Biotech
- Matt Wickenheiser, Portland Press Herald, Dec. 16, 2003
On this 210-acre Monsanto Co. campus outside St. Louis, grow lights make
dozens of rooftop greenhouses glow yellow-green each night. The massive
buildings themselves contain research laboratories and experimental
growing chambers for the development of bioengineered seeds and
herbicides, with 1,000 employees working on site. Monsanto has 120 of
these growth chambers in Chesterfield, some the size of freezers, most
roughly 20 feet by 25 feet - rooms where artificial sunlight, heat,
humidity and other environmental factors can be controlled and recorded.
"We can make it a desert or a northern Minnesota soybean field," said
Robert Harness, a retired Monsanto executive who still serves as a
government and media affairs consultant. He stood inside one of the
chambers that contained rows and rows of small corn plants.
To Monsanto, the work being done here is both profitable and virtuous:
Scientists work to improve nature and feed a hungry world. To critics,
though, the facility is a kind of Frankenstein laboratory, where humans
are tampering with the environment in ways that could ultimately harm the
A clash between these world views has been front-page news in Maine since
July, when Monsanto filed a lawsuit against Oakhurst, a family-owned dairy
based in Portland. But even now, on the day when the two sides might
settle the dispute that has attracted international attention, few Mainers
understand what vision drives the Missouri corporation or why it became
entangled with a small Maine milk producer. The lawsuit accuses Oakhurst
of using a slogan that, by implication, says something is wrong with the
milk produced with the help of Monsanto's synthetic bovine growth hormone.
The suit is important to Monsanto, executives said, because they do not
want the idea that something is wrong with their products to spread.
Oakhurst has argued that there's nothing wrong with the labeling that says
"Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones," and that it is an
important marketing tool based on customer concerns about growth hormones.
Each company - Monsanto and Oakhurst - feels that it has right on its
side. In every other way, though, the little dairy in a small Maine
community differs from the huge agricultural-support business
headquartered in a big Midwest city. Oakhurst employs 240 and had $85
million in sales in 2002; Monsanto employs roughly 13,000 worldwide and
had net sales of $4.7 billion in 2002.
Oakhurst - with its acorn-shaped mascot, Oakie - has been doing the same
work for decades as the friendly, non-controversial dairy down the street.
It helps local communities plant trees, markets its product as the most
wholesome of commodities and donates 10 percent of pretax profit to
Meanwhile, Monsanto is a large, multinational corporation that, by what it
says is necessity, plays the bully's role with farmers and dairies like
Oakhurst. Lawsuits in two states accuse Monsanto's former chemical
division, now a stand-alone company, Solutia, of polluting the environment
Activists in some third-world countries argue that Monsanto's activities
there amount to exploitation by an agribusiness giant. Critics elsewhere
warn that its products could mutate into environmentally harmful strains -
such as weeds resistant to herbicide - or produce as-yet-undetected health
On the other hand, Monsanto also has a philanthropic side and gives 2
percent of pretax profit - $9 million annually - to charities. In
corporate America, 1 percent is the norm. "We understand our license to
operate comes from the community; we want to make sure they think well of
Monsanto," said Deborah J. Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund,
which the corporation funds. "People want to work for a company that has a
good reputation in the community."
Monsanto is a profit-driven publicly held company, but its researchers
also believe the work they're doing will help end world hunger. "You can
hardly get the profits if you don't develop important products at the same
time," said Eric Sachs, a researcher in the scientific outreach
Monsanto's home is St. Louis, a city of 350,000, with more than 2.6
million people in the metro area. There are 18 Fortune 1000 companies
headquartered here, ranging from Emerson to Edward Jones. Monsanto employs
roughly 4,000 people in the region, with its main offices in the town of
Creve Coeur and the massive biotechnology research facility in nearby
Chesterfield. Ten of the 210 acres are developed as parking lots and
buildings. The remaining acreage at Chesterfield is woodlands and
Monsanto works at the cutting edge of biotechnology, work that fits in
with the region's desire to rapidly build itself into the "BioBelt," an
area that officials hope will be renowned for plant-based genetic research
After several corporate restructurings in recent years, Monsanto has
become focused on biotechnology products for agriculture. Products on the
market include insect- and herbicide-resistant seeds and the synthetic
bovine growth hormone Posilac that is at the center of its fight with
Monsanto's current offerings increase farm productivity with higher crop
or milk yields, but products now being developed in company labs would
directly benefit the consumer, adding nutritional properties such as
heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids to soy.
The very nature of Monsanto's work - altering the basic genetic structure
of plants - faces fierce opposition and criticism worldwide from groups
such as Greenpeace. And Monsanto does not shy away from the controversy,
spending $77 million in legal fees and judgments during 2001 and 2002.
Critics argue that tampering with nature could unleash unforeseen
consequences. Biotechnologists such as those at Monsanto, however, see
their work as a way to increase farm yields, potentially feeding some of
the world's 815 million malnourished people.
"We're not meddling. We're taking calculated, appropriate steps. It's
science-driven. It's the drive to feed more people, to solve finite food
issues," said Robert H. Rose, spokesman for the Donald Danforth Plant
Science Center, a nonprofit research facility funded in part by Monsanto
to the tune of $62 million in monetary and land donations. "At the end of
the day, we're going to be helping people who are malnourished."
Robert Horsch, vice president of International Development Partnerships at
Monsanto, knows firsthand how badly that work is needed. He serves on a
United Nations hunger task force and in 1999 was awarded the National
Medal of Technology by President Bill Clinton. He's on the task force
because of the work Monsanto has done to aid farmers in sub-Saharan
regions of Africa. He's one of the country's leading geneticists and said
he sees criticism of his life's work in biotechnology in two ways.
"On the intellectual side, the criticism is good. It keeps a diversity of
thought; it keeps a check and balance. I believe people and human
institutions are quite fallible and quite corruptible - if you don't have
the checks and balances, you're open to problems," said Horsch. "The other
edge to the sword is the emotional one. It is hard. It hurts. It takes
away from feeling good about it. It's also slowed everything down, and
it's made things more difficult."
Criticism is nothing new for the 102-year-old company, which began with
the domestic production of saccharin and expanded time and again over the
decades. From the beginning, Monsanto faced legal and competitive
challenges. President Theodore Roosevelt directed a task force to
investigate the safety of saccharin, and German competitors initiated a
By the early 1980s, though, Monsanto had proven itself a commercial
success and diversified so much that it was then a multinational
conglomerate, with a hand in electronic materials, synthetic fibers,
plastics, chemicals and agriculture products. In 1982, Monsanto's
agriculture business was a freestanding division, producing herbicides and
insecticides, within that corporation. But in the late 1990s, Monsanto
began to focus on that work. It split off or sold its interests in
chemicals, sweeteners and pharmaceuticals. Today, Monsanto is focused
exclusively on agriculture, mainly in herbicides and seeds.
Its flagship product is Roundup, an herbicide that blocks a plant's
production of a critical enzyme, causing the plant to quickly die. While
Roundup's patent has expired, Monsanto's current generation of seeds have
been developed to work with the herbicide.
Called "Roundup-Ready," the line includes soybean, corn, cotton and canola
seeds that have been genetically engineered to allow for the production of
the needed enzyme through another means, essentially making the crops
immune to Roundup's effects.
Farmers can allow a crop to grow and spray an entire field with Roundup,
ensuring that their produce will grow and every other unwanted plant will
die. Monsanto has also produced genetically modified cotton and corn that
kill certain insects that damage those crops, an advance, the company
said, that could drastically reduce the use of pesticides. Monsanto has
spent between $200 million and $400 million since 1988 to develop the corn
seeds, according to Bill Kosinski, biotechnology educator at Monsanto's
Chesterfield research facility.
The crops have found favor in the United States' agriculture community.
According to Monsanto, for instance, 80 percent of the soybean crops
planted this year sprouted from Roundup-Ready seeds. Products that make
their way into the supermarket that originated from these crops don't have
to be labeled as genetically modified; with only one gene modified,
Monsanto has proven to regulators that the crops are substantially the
same as non-modified ones.
Monsanto scientists work backward from the traits they want in the crops.
If they know of an organism that exhibits the trait, they isolate the gene
that controls it. They then introduce that gene to the desired crop
through various means. The modified plant cells are then carefully grown
into plants and cross-pollinated with non-modified members of the same
species. The resulting offspring have the altered genetic structure, and
those plants are tested again and again, under a variety of conditions, in
the growth chambers.
The plants graduate to the Chesterfield labs' two acres of rooftop
greenhouses, and then, after more tests, move into carefully monitored
test fields in the outdoors. Each step of the way, the plants' tolerance
to various conditions is recorded, as is the effectiveness of the traits
scientists are trying to encourage.
Reams of documentation from these tests go before the Food and Drug
Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, three agencies that work together to regulate
Monsanto has agriculture-targeted products such as drought-resistant crops
in its research pipeline, as well as new crops that could directly benefit
consumers, such as a vitamin A-enriched mustard, developed to address
deficiency-related blindness in India, according to Sachs. "We expect the
consumers will be very open to this approach," said Sachs. "These products
will be different - they will have to be labeled high-vitamin A."
Consumer attitudes toward biotech vary. In Europe, there's heavy
opposition, related somewhat to mistrust of government regulators, Sachs
said. That mistrust grew out of regulators' handling of mad cow disease,
which isn't connected to biotech, but cast doubt on governments'
effectiveness in risk management. In the United States, "it's not total,
but people have a great deal of trust in the FDA," said Thomas M.
Helscher, Monsanto's director of global industry affairs. By and large,
said Helscher, the American public isn't concerned about biotechnology.
"When people wake in the morning, they are not thinking about
biotechnology," said Helscher. "I wouldn't call it a non-issue; it's not a
top-of-mind issue." Helscher pointed to a recent Gallup poll that looked
at the most important problems facing America. The economy was at the top
of the poll, with 20 percent listing that as a top concern, and the
federal deficit was at the bottom with 2 percent.
Concerns with biotech didn't make the list, he noted. Similarly, an April
International Food Information Council survey found that less than 1
percent of U.S. consumers actively avoid genetically modified foods; the
majority, 65 percent, avoided sugar or high-carb foods.
Sachs said the concerns he hears about biotechnology revolve around
"what-ifs." By adding genes, there must be some effect, some chance for
unexpected results that actually hurt people, folks think. "What I tell
people is 'You're absolutely right. Those things could happen,' " said
Sachs. "What they don't have in mind is what we are doing to make sure
those things don't happen."
For example, the accompanying documentation submitted to federal
regulators for Posilac, Monsanto's synthetic bovine growth hormone,
stacked up to 96 linear feet, according to Harness, who was intimately
involved in shepherding the product through the government agencies.
While seed technology is the main focus of research these days, Monsanto's
Posilac has been on the market since 1994, having long since moved from
the labs to the working farms. Posilac is the most extensively studied
animal health product in the world, according to Jennifer L. Garrett,
technical services director at Monsanto.
The cow's naturally occurring growth hormone, somatotropin, was first
discovered in the 1920s. In the '30s and '40s, it was found that
somatotropin taken from the pituitary glands of dead cows and injected in
live cows increased milk production.
In the late 1980s, Monsanto produced somatotropin by recombinant DNA
technology, creating the synthetic growth hormone known as RbST, or
recombinant bovine somatotropin. Essentially, the cow genes that make
cells produce somatropin are isolated and inserted into a bacterial cell.
The cell multiplies, and the cells produce RbST in a fermentation tank at
a plant in Augusta, Ga.
That RbST is then injected into cows, once every two weeks, increasing
daily milk production by eight to 12 pounds per cow. Roughly 9 million
cows in the United States are treated with Posilac, according to Garrett.
Figuring in the cost of the treatment and additional feed needed by the
cows who are treated with Posilac, the additional production in a 100-head
herd amounts to roughly $13,300 more annually for the farmers, Garrett
said. Milk from cows treated with Posilac is the same as milk from cows
that haven't been treated, Garrett said. There is somatotropin in all
milk, and the amount is the same in milk from treated and untreated cows,
Still, consumers have doubts regarding any product that comes from altered
sources - particularly a staple as basic and wholesome as milk. "We, as
consumers who aren't trained in science, are naturally skeptical," said
Garrett, "but the milk is the same, and we have the science to support
that. "As a scientist, I find it perplexing and disappointing that there
are so many people who will put out misinformation about milk."