* Blessings and Challenges: Science Holds The Key Thanksgiving
* Genetically Modified Crops Clear Hurdle in China
* India in No Position to Stop GM Tech: Minister
* Trade Chaos Looms as GM Crops Proliferate
* US: Monsanto's Dominance Draws Antitrust Inquiry
* Monsanto: The Parable of the Sower
* Review - Genetic Glass Ceilings - Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity
* How About the Term "Transgenosis"?
Blessings and Challenges: Science Holds The Key Thanksgiving
- William H. Danforth, (Editorial), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov 25,2009
'Figuring out how to feed the world and save our planet.'
Thanksgiving is a time to count our blessings. Remembering good fortune is especially important in harder times. Among my blessings has been the opportunity to work for causes in which I believe and in the company of dedicated friends and colleagues.
I have had the chance to do so at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an institution with potential great benefit to the world. I also was part of an effort to encourage Congress to create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture. It is not surprising that, when the new NIFA was formed, the leaders of the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked Roger Beachy, the founding president of the Danforth Center, to serve as its founding director. The opportunity for Roger and for the nation is immense. I can think of no one better fitted for this challenge. Done correctly, NIFA can help with innumerable challenges, three of which are of particular note.
First, America must continue to lead the world in agriculture by innovating more rapidly than others, some with more favorable climates and cheaper labor and land. We need increased productivity with fewer inputs, lower costs and new value added. Science is a necessary component of innovation and success, and many others chase this goal. For 20 years, China and India have doubled global agricultural research. Our nation starts with many assets and should not toss away our lead.
The second challenge is ancient: better nutrition and, in many places, hunger and starvation. These are scourges that have plagued humankind since life began. Tonight, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry and perhaps 16,000 children will die of causes related to hunger and malnutrition.
The third challenge is relatively new: preserving and enhancing the environment so our grandchildren inherit a livable earth. This challenge is especially important, even though throughout time we humans have been changing the environment that sustains us, usually for the worse.
So the ancient challenge and the new - feeding the world and saving the environment - really are singular. We must produce enough food, energy and other products in a way that is indefinitely sustainable.
Norman Borlaug, the "Father of the Green Revolution" and an inspiration to all who believe in the importance of plant science, died on Sept. 12 at age 95. Using vision, scientific talent, very hard work and great persistence, he led the way to tripling the world production of major cereal grains, wheat, corn and rice and increased the production of soybeans.
It was an amazing advance that is unprecedented in human history. The Green Revolution ended periodic famines in China, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. It is estimated that between 1 billion and 1.5 billion people would have died of starvation over the last 50 years were it not for Dr. Borlaug's efforts. In addition, the Green Revolution saved the world from environmental disaster. Without it, hungry people would have destroyed rain and temperate forests, parks and wetlands to produce what food they could.
Success led many to assume nutritious, delicious, safe and affordable food was unlimited - but we humans never completely fix problems. The Green Revolution is only a couple of generations old, but food prices are rising again; this year, 30 nations experienced hunger riots. World population has more than doubled. Urbanization eats into farmland. Calamity awaits.
An agricultural revolution to provide what's needed on land able to produce for generations is a tough but noble goal. Our modern scientific and technological tools are allies.
We must quickly work individually and collectively to make agriculture more productive and sustainable. My passion - fundamental research - can enlarge understanding of how plants and livestock work at the molecular and cellular levels (and how they can be modified to supply food, fuel and other products, while preserving our environment).
Science alone cannot meet all challenges, but first-rate science is critical, nonetheless. The time to act is now.
Genetically Modified Crops Clear Hurdle in China
- Andrew Batson and James T. Areddy, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 30, 2009 http://online.wsj.com
China's government declared two strains of genetically modified rice safe to produce and consume, taking a major step toward endorsing the use of biotechnology in the staple food crop of billions of people in Asia.
In a written reply to questions from The Wall Street Journal, China's Ministry of Agriculture said Monday that it had issued safety certificates to domestically developed strains of genetically modified rice and corn, after a years-long process involving trial production and environmental tests. Further approvals are required before the strains can be grown on a commercial scale, the ministry said, and industry participants said it may take another two to three years for the rice to reach production.
Foreign companies that produce genetically modified crops welcomed the news, which could eventually pave the way for approvals in China of more of their products. "It's good news in the context of commercial introduction of biotechnology in crops in China," said Andrew McConville, the Singapore-based head of corporate affairs in Asia for Syngenta AG, a Switzerland-based agribusiness company.
China is the world's top producer and consumer of rice, so its use of modified varieties has the potential to alter the grain's global supply patterns. Widespread production has the potential to complicate trade with places such as Europe that restrict genetically modified foods. On the other side, U.S. companies have been urging China to speed up its approval process for genetically modified crops. A spokeswoman for Monsanto Co., the world's biggest producer of genetically modified seeds, which has received Chinese licenses for some of its genetically modified varieties, didn't reply to a request for comment.
China's officials have been less constrained by public pressure over the sometimes-controversial use of biotechnology in food than those of other countries. The government has long supported research into agricultural biotechnology as part of a drive to ensure the nation remains self-sufficient in staple crops.
"This is an important achievement in independent intellectual property from our country's research into genetic modification technology, and creates a good basis for commercial production," the Ministry of Agriculture said.
Genetically modified corn, cotton and soybeans are grown in the U.S., Canada, Argentina and other countries, but genetically modified rice has so far not been grown on a major scale anywhere. Most such crops now available, including the ones developed in China, have been modified to resist pests or herbicides --traits that appeal to farmers eager to boost output.
More recent efforts at genetic modification have aimed at creating benefits more noticeable to consumers. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has been working on developing so-called golden rice, which is genetically modified to include vitamin A. It hopes to have the rice strain, which it says could help combat childhood malnutrition, on the market by 2011.
India in No Position to Stop GM Tech: Minister
- Hindu Business Line, Nov. 13, 2009 http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/
New Delhi: The Government on Friday said India cannot oppose the use of the genetically modified technology as it wants to increase crop yields. “The GM technology cannot be avoided,” the Minister of State for Agriculture, Mr K V Thomas said, adding India cannot oppose the use of technology if it wants to increase yields and manage the present agricultural crisis.
The crop shortage of key food-grains had led to a rise in prices of some food commodities such as sugar and tur dal this year. In Kerala, tur dal is costing Rs 90-100 a kg and sugar has touched Rs 35 a kg this year, he shared. The minister noted: “The country need to take scientific and practical steps to improve productivity and bring down cost of production. The GM technology is one way to achieve this.” However, the GM food should be a matter of choice, he added.
Supporting GM technology, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Deputy Director General, Mr Swapan Dutta said, “The climate change will further add difficulties to our present food crisis. We need to develop new generation crops, which can b e grown under adverse weather conditions and can generate better income to farmers.” At present, Bt cotton is widely cultivated in India. Last month, the government had approved the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal also.
Trade Chaos Looms as GM Crops Proliferate
- Paul Voosen, Greenwire > Nov. 2, 2009 http://www.greenwire.com
'Europe can't feed its pigs -- at least, not by itself'
Meat-hungry and short on animal feed, European nations have relied for years on protein imports, such as the ground meal of soybeans from the United States, to sustain their cattle and pig farms. While this complex chain of trade has worked reasonably well, it has started to be threatened by a microscopic foe: the dust of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Since July, European regulators have stopped at least a dozen shipments of soybeans or soy meal from the United States, according to the European Union. Border agents blocked the shipments -- totaling more than 200,000 tons -- after finding minute traces of GM corn that, while approved in the United States, had not been cleared for import in Europe.
This crop gap between the United States and Europe has been growing starker each year, and an emergency could be imminent, according to Hilde Willekens, a governmental affairs director for the seed firm Syngenta AG.
"When is the crisis big enough to become a problem? This summer, large cargos have been held in Germany and Spain," Willekens said. Without U.S. soybeans, the whole feed market could collapse, and yet Europe "doesn't respond as if it is important," she said.
Soy shipments have been stopped in Spain, Germany and Denmark, all of which found traces of a new breed of GM corn developed by Monsanto Co. While the company long ago sought approval for the corn in Europe, it languished in the bloc's convoluted approval process and was finally approved Friday.
Almost invariably, traces of this dust have mingled in the long progression soy makes from U.S. fields through grain elevators, freight trains and ocean vessels across the Atlantic. Since Europe has zero tolerance for importing any unapproved GM crop, the dust was enough to bring the soy trade to a screeching halt.
"This summer was the first time we realized that you can find one crop in another as a low-level presence," said Emilio Rodriguez Cerezo, an E.U. researcher. "The boats are not fully cleaned."
Added Bryan Endres, an agriculture law professor at the University of Illinois: "It's a real concern to the industry because once the cat's out of the bag, it's hard to put it back in. Once these [crops] are in the commodity system, it's hard to resegregate them out."
The European Union -- which, given its hodgepodge federalism, may work best in a crisis -- did finally hear the multitude of complaints from its feed importers. For the past two months, the European agriculture minister, Mariann Fischer Boel, berated and spoke darkly of what could occur if Monsanto's corn is not approved quickly.
Month after month, genetically modified organisms receive a clean bill of health from Europe's food safety agency, and yet the member states lack the political will to rule for or against them, Boel said at a policy dialogue this month in Brussels. The problem will only get worse, Boel warned. "For the farm sector, the imbalance between the European Union and the rest of the world is a clear and present financial threat," she said.
'A never-ending story'
The problems that Europe has had with corn dust are only a foreshadowing of the trade chaos that is due to follow a rapid increase in the number of GM crops, experts say_. _Across the globe, countries are unprepared for the stress new crops will put on their trade and their time_.
A rich pipeline of GM crops is emerging from countries that have previously produced little in the way of new research. China, Brazil and Argentina are investing heavily in the field, inserting new traits in rice, tobacco, sugar cane and cassava, for example.
Currently, there are some 30 GM crop traits that are used worldwide. Within five years, there will be more than 120 such traits, according to a report issued by the Joint Research Centre, the European Union's scientific research service. "The result is that a growing number of GM products are widely used in other parts of the world but are not yet authorized in the European Union," Boel said, "not because we've found evidence of risk but because the political decision is being knocked around like a ball in a slow-motion tennis match." Cerezo, one of the JRC report's lead authors, added, "It's become clear that everything affects everything. You need to see it globally."
While the problem with Monsanto's corn may be resolved, another imbalance is sure to pop up, he said. "Then will come another one," Cerezo said. "It's a never-ending story."
The problem will not be limited to the European Union. The United States' policy for unapproved imports is identical to Europe's -- zero tolerance. This has not been an issue, since the United States has been the home base for the world's GM crops. But that will change, said Endres, the University of Illinois law professor.
"When we start importing crops from other countries that have advanced their biotech programs--. we're going to be at the other end of the equation," Endres said. "We're not always going to be the GM exporter."
Currently, most GM crops are developed by multinational chemical or seed companies like Monsanto or Syngenta, which seek broad approval for their products worldwide. But by 2015, half of all GM crops will stem from Asia and Latin America, designed for local markets, the JRC report found. "It seems very improbable that all these new GM crops will be submitted for approval," the report says, warning that would make future trade disruptions far more likely.
There are no easy answers for the problem. For example, it has become more common to "stack" genetic traits, such as herbicide resistance, in single plants. In Europe, each new stacked GM plant requires a separate review, which will cause an even heavier workload for regulators. The United States, meanwhile, allows stacked GM plants with previously analyzed genes to pass with low levels of review, causing outrage from environmental groups.
One seemingly simple way to prevent future trade flare-ups would be for both the United States and European Union to adopt thresholds for the presence of unapproved GM crops. Most of the percentages detected during the soy-meal fears were below 0.1 percent -- lower than what can be measured without scientific doubt.
Regulators and consumers need to understand that no such thing as "absolute purity" exists in agriculture, said Kimball Nill, the technical issues director of the U.S. Soybean Export Council. Farming is a dirty, mixed-up process. There are thresholds for all sorts of other products, like stones or rat feces, for example. "In theory, 2 percent [of the soy meal] could be topsoil," Nill said.
The largest frustration faced by importers and exporters on both sides of the Atlantic is the sheer uncertainty that can come when unapproved GM crops are floating through the system. It is not uncommon for a shipment to test GM-negative at a U.S. port and GM-positive once it has reached Germany.
With such mix-and-match results, economic liability becomes a major concern, said Endres, the agriculture lawyer. "Who's responsible at that stage? Who's responsible for the loss?" Endres said. If the crop is refused by regulators, "the liability is tremendous."
False positives are a real concern, since regulators "are working at the lowest level of the detection method," Cerezo said. Different laboratories have different definitions of what is the presence of GM genes and what is not. There is no harmonization of standards, he said.
Animal-feed markets are particularly sensitive because increasingly, there is not enough protein to go around. China has discovered a taste for meat, in a big way, and has begun sucking in imports from North and South America that might have previously gone to Europe.
During the soy troubles, pork producers, which have to make contracts for months in advance, were stressed and threatened swearing off U.S. imports entirely. There were projections that feed could triple in price.
"The operators that import feed from the United States or Argentina are suffering from instability," said Cindy Boonen, a policy adviser at Belgium's Flemish Agriculture Department. "They're running a large risk buying a product they may have to send back."
But given the few European sources, feed companies have little choice but to gamble -- successfully, this time -- that the crisis would be solved.
Few doubt that similar problems will arise in the future, and yet there has been little movement, on either side of the Atlantic, toward establishing a threshold for the low-level presence of unapproved GM crops. In Europe, where GM products remain hugely unpopular, don't expect progress anytime soon, the industry says. "The backlog is simply enormous," Syngenta's Willekens said. "If there is no administrative action to move the process quicker, we will continue to have problems."
US: Monsanto's Dominance Draws Antitrust Inquiry
- Peter Whoriskey The Washington Post, Nov, 29, 2009 http://www.washingtonpost.com
The vast majority of the nation's two primary crops grow from seeds genetically altered according to Monsanto company patents. Ninety-three percent of soybeans. Eighty percent of corn. The seeds represent "probably the most revolutionary event in grain crops over the last 30 years," said Geno Lowe, a Salisbury, Md., soybean farmer.
But for farmers such as Lowe, prices of the Monsanto-patented seeds have steadily increased, roughly doubling during the past decade, to about $50 for a 50-pound bag of soybean seed, according to seed dealers. The revolution, and Monsanto's dominant role in the nation's agriculture, has not unfolded without complaint. Farmers have decried the price increases, and competitors say the company has ruthlessly stifled competition.
Now Monsanto -- like IBM and Google -- has drawn scrutiny from U.S. antitrust investigators, who under the Obama administration have looked more skeptically at the actions of dominant firms. During the Bush administration, the Justice Department did not file a single case under antimonopoly laws regulating a dominant firm. But that stretch seems unlikely to continue. This year, the Obama Justice Department tossed out the antitrust guidelines of its predecessor because they advocated "extreme hesitancy in the face of potential abuses by monopoly firms."
Monsanto says it has done nothing wrong. "Farmers choose these products because of the value they deliver on farm," Mon santo said in a statement. "Given the phenomenally broad adoption of these technologies by farmers, such questions are normal and to be expected." "During the same period, our competitors . . . largely ignored biotech," the company said in a statement. "Monsanto took risks our competition chose not to take."
Although farmers have grumbled about Monsanto's regular price increases for Roundup Ready technology for seeds, it is DuPont, a Monsanto rival, that has pressed the antitrust case.
Farmers and seed companies "are afraid to speak in public, worried that they will become victims of retaliation," Thomas L. Sager, DuPont senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "That's why it's so important that antitrust investigators move quickly -- to learn the truth before even more harm is done to America's farmers."
In court papers, DuPont argues that Monsanto has used the dominance of the Roundup Ready brand to prevent competitors from bringing innovations to market. Several farmers said the cost of Roundup Ready seeds seemed to rise faster than their own margins. But that doesn't mean, at least just yet, that they'll stop using them. "Everybody likes Roundup Ready," said William Layton, a grain farmer on the Eastern Shore. "Maybe it costs a little more than we like. But everybody's going to keep using it."
Monsanto: The Parable of the Sower
- The Economist, Nov. 19, 2009 Economist.com Full story with graphics at http://www.economist.com/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=14904184
The debate over whether Monsanto is a corporate sinner or saint FEW companies excite such extreme emotions as Monsanto. To its critics, the agricultural giant is a corporate hybrid of Victor Frankenstein and Ebenezer Scrooge, using science to create foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet, and intellectualproperty laws to squeeze every last penny out of the world's poor. The list of Monsanto's sins dates back to when (with other firms) it produced Agent Orange, a herbicide notorious for its use by American forces in Vietnam. Recently "Food Inc", a documentary film, lambasted the company.
To its admirers, the innovations in seeds pioneered by Monsanto are the world's best hope of tackling a looming global food crisis. Hugh Grant, the firm's boss since 2003, says that without the sort of technological breakthroughs Monsanto has achieved the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050 while using less land and water, as many believe it must. Mr Grant, of course, would say that. But he is not alone. Bill Gates sees Monsanto's innovations as essential to the agricultural revolution in Africa to which his charitable foundation is committed. Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, is also a fan. Monsanto has come a long way from its roots in pharmaceuticals and chemicals (in which capacity it made Agent Orange). The original company was formed in 1901 to make saccharine. In 2000 it merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn, a drugmaker. Two years later the Monsanto group's agricultural activities were spun off into a new Monsanto. At that time the company was best known for Roundup, a herbicide popular with farmers. Roundup is still a leading brand, but margins have been eroded by competition from Chinese producers of other forms of glyphosate weedkiller. Roundup's share of Monsanto's revenue is shrinking towards 10%. There is talk that it might be sold. "It is no sacred cow. We look at it every year," says Mr Grant.
Today most of Monsanto's $11.7 billion of annual sales come from seeds, increasingly of genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, varieties (see chart), and from licensing genetic traits. Indeed, it is now best known, for better or worse, for applying biotechnology to seed production, winning a string of the sort of patents on living organisms that became legal in America only after a Supreme Court decision in 1980. In July it gave its GM seed a new master brand: Genuity, a name that evokes "being genuine, authentic and original", according to a company spokesman. It will denote a "family of innovative products that will enable farmers to do what they do best, even better." In the 13 years since GM seed was first farmed commercially, agriculture-and Monsanto with it-has become increasingly central to several of the world's most pressing policy debates, says Mr Grant, a Scot who joined the company in 1981. Nowadays he spends a good deal of his time taking part in those debates, which range from concerns about higher prices and shortages of supply to the use of land for growing biofuels rather than food, climate change and water. Arguments over water, thinks Mr Grant, "will dwarf the discussion that has taken place so far over food."
Monsanto is also getting caught up in the debate over intellectual-property rights in food and their implications for antitrust policy, on which Barack Obama's administration sounds less friendly than that of George Bush. It has already marked agriculture for attention. How successful Monsanto and rival makers of GM seed, such as DuPont and Syngenta, are in winning round a sceptical public and policymakers will play a big part in determining how lucrative their innovations prove to be. In public attitudes to GM food, Mr Grant believes "there's been progress everywhere compared with 15 years ago." Still, Europe remains "slow, a real slouch. European farmers have been denied the right to choose." Although the European Union is slowly becoming open to imports of GM food, it is still largely opposed to growing the stuff. Monsanto has still to complete a test of any GM seed in Britain because protesters have destroyed its experiments. In Latin America, by contrast, Argentina and Brazil are both growing GM corn (maize) and soyabeans. In some ways, rising awareness of the food crisis has helped people to see "GM as something with potential benefits other than just boosting the profits of Big Food," says Mr Grant-to Monsanto's benefit. Well, maybe. Turbo-charging Mendel
Monsanto's innovations fall into two categories. The first is breeding, which seedmakers have been doing with increasing sophistication for decades. Monsanto is able to accelerate the process of selective breeding through better mapping of a seed's genetic qualities and its suitability to grow in a particular place. At Monsanto's research laboratory in St Louis, the company's home city, farmers on one of the many tours that are part of its marketing efforts are clearly fascinated by a piece of technology known as the corn chipper. A machine picks up an individual seed, rotates it to the right position, then chips off a sample, which has its genetic material analysed. (Getting the seed in the right position is the hardest step, because each one has a different shape and it is crucial that the chipper does not damage the embryo and thus stop the seed from growing properly.)
The likely attributes of the plant that would grow from each seed are predicted from its DNA, the most promising seeds are planted, and the process is repeated with the seeds that those plants go on to produce. The tour guide refers to the operation as "CSI: St Louis", although testing now goes on all year, at centres around the world. In the past three years this technology has helped speed up dramatically Monsanto's ability to identify and grow the most productive seed for any given location. "It is the mother and father of all dating agencies: we can analyse every single seed we harvest, do a health check, guess what its grandchildren will be like, send it anywhere in the world," says Mr Grant.
The second category of innovation, in which Monsanto is becoming increasingly adventurous, is genetic modification: identifying genetic traits with particular qualities and transplanting those traits into seeds to improve their performance. In essence, the goal is to pack as much technology into a seed as possible. The biggest breakthroughs so far have been in weed and bug control. Perhaps the most common feature of Monsanto's range of seeds is that they are Roundup Ready, meaning that they are guaranteed to survive spraying with Roundup that will take out any surrounding weeds. Some plants have been bioengineered to deter pests from eating their leaves and roots, which reduces or even eliminates the need for insecticides. Farmers on their tours cannot fail to miss the display cases in which a healthy Monsanto plant grows next to a seriously ailing traditional specimen of the same variety. Monsanto has just launched two new varieties of seed that have been engineered to be far more productive: Genuity SmartStax corn, which company trials suggest can increase yields by 5-10%; and Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soyabeans, which in trials have shown yields 7-11% higher than the first generation of Roundup Ready soyabeans. Over the past couple of decades, soyabean yields have risen at an annual rate of barely 1%. In around 2012 or 2013 Monsanto expects to launch a soyabean whose processing will result in fewer transfats. It will also offer an "omega-3 soyabean", genetically enhanced to give consumers the many proven health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Until now, omega- 3 has been harvested from fish and so, in Mr Grant's words, "products with omega-3 in them taste a bit fishy." Fish derive omega-3 from algae, so Monsanto has done likewise, extracting the relevant genetic material from the algae and putting it into soyabeans. Now, he says, without the fishy taste, omega-3 will go well in yogurts, health bars and so forth. The company is also aiming to engineer seed to use nitrogen more efficiently-and hence to require less fertiliser. This would reduce farmers' exposure to the price of oil, from which fertilisers are made, and the damage done when nitrogen leaches into the water supply. In about three years' time Monsanto expects to launch its first "drought tolerant" products. It is examining several ways of making plants more tolerant of drought. One is to improve the roots' take-up of water. Another is to reduce water loss through the leaves. A third is to alter plants' reaction to lack of water. When stressed, a plant shuts down growth in order to conserve what it has. They often over-react, and use a lot of energy when they restart. Genetic modification can help it interpret water conditions more accurately and avoid unnecessary stops and starts.
Because water shortages are predicted for many parts of the world, Monsanto expects these drought-tolerant plants to be a huge commercial success. The first of them will be corn, intended for a dry strip of America running from northern Texas to the Dakotas. Droughttolerant technology has also prompted Monsanto to start focusing on dry-land wheat. Wheat acres have declined in recent years, contributing to shortages. In July the company paid $45m for WestBred, a wheat-seed firm.
Trust and antitrust
Acquisitions have been a key part of Monsanto's strategy, giving it access to new seed markets. In 2005, it began to apply biotech to vegetables after buying Seminis, the world's largest vegetable-seed company, for $1.4 billion. Since it was spun off, Monsanto has made more than 20 acquisitions (as well as several disposals). Those purchases are one reason why it was singled out as an appropriate target for the antitrust authorities in a paper published in October by the American Antitrust Institute, an independent competition watchdog. The paper laments the "impaired state of competition in transgenic seed"-which it blames on Monsanto above all. The company's acquisitions have been crucial in creating the horizontal and vertical integration that support its platforms in cotton, corn and soyabeans. Last year its share of the markets for GM corn and soyabeans was about 65% and that for GM cotton about 45%. The institute's paper argues that, thanks to its dominance, Monsanto is actually harming innovation in seed. Monsanto had to make concessions to win the antitrust authorities' approval for two of its biggest purchases, of DeKalb in 1998 and of Delta and Pine Land in 2007.
True, for the past 13 years Monsanto has been licensing its technology broadly, to hundreds of firms, including some of its main competitors. This, the paper concedes, has ensured that Monsanto has not ended up in "control of large, totally closed platforms in transgenic seed that could be challenged only by the unlikely emergence of rival platforms." However, it cites Monsanto's reputation for defending its intellectual property fiercely through the courts as another reason why the antitrust authorities should take a look at the firm. Monsanto's terms of business require farmers to buy fresh seed every year. Its new Violator Exclusion Policy denies farmers who break the terms of its licences access to all its technology for ever. This summer it achieved its latest success in enforcing its stern line when it won a case against some Canadian farmers who had held on to seed. Agricultural markets have been mentioned as an area under review by officials in the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. The DoJ is expected to make Google its main target, but it will be no surprise if Monsanto comes a close second. Already, the DoJ is looking into complaints by DuPont, perhaps Monsanto's fiercest rival. In May Monsanto sued DuPont, alleging that Pioneer, DuPont's seed arm, had broken licensing terms for herbicideresistant technology in corn and soyabeans. After an ugly war of words, DuPont countersued and complained to the DoJ.
"We are in a hyper-competitive business. Farmers have no shortage of choice," insists the unapologetic Mr Grant. "Our goal is to be competitive every spring at the farmer's table. A farmer may be willing to abdicate the decision on what chemicals to use, but not on what seed to plant. We aim to win one field at a time, one spring at a time." Enforcing licences is crucial to that strategy. Just as in the drug industry, innovation is expensive: Monsanto has a research and development budget of nearly $1 billion a year, and reckons it costs $100m to bring a new GM seed to market. If there is to be innovation, the firm insists, intellectual property must be protected. However, Monsanto is using different language-and a different approach from that of big drugmakers-when it comes to dealing with the millions of poor people in Africa. Mr Grant says that he is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the pharmaceutical industry in holding back on making valuable innovations available to the developing world. He believes that "in a perfect world, on the same day you launch [a drought-resistant seed] in Kansas, you would launch it similarly in Nairobi"-although in practice Africa and other poor places that are short of water will have to wait a while longer. Over the past three years, the firm has started to play a leading role in efforts collectively described as an attempt to create a "green revolution in Africa". Mr Grant talks enthusiastically about his friendship with Norman Borlaug, the driving force behind the The next generation in the first in Mexico, then in Asia, in the second half of the past century, which is generally reckoned to have saved at least 1 billion lives. Shortly before his death this year, aged 95, Borlaug reportedly expressed regret that he would not live to see the "gene revolution".
In white corn, a staple in Africa and Mexico, Monsanto has donated all its intellectual property, seed and know-how for developing drought-tolerant genes to Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public-private partnership that has received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the foundation of Howard Buffett, an Illinois farmer (and son of Warren Buffett). The five countries to benefit are Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Mr Grant expects to launch drought-tolerant corn in Africa within two or three years of the launch in America. The company is also working with Millennium Villages, an anti-poverty project led by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University. Big Pharma versus Big Farma
In contrast to the anti-retroviral drugs that pharmaceutical companies sell in Africa, this product will generate no royalties for Monsanto, says Mr Grant. "The buzzword is the 'democratisation of technology' and we have learnt from Big Pharma the dangers of being too slow," says Mr Grant. The fact that seeds suited to one place do not necessarily grow well elsewhere greatly reduces the risk of parallel imports that affected the drugmakers. They feared that drugs given away in Africa would be shipped back to rich countries, undermining their business there.
That said, he does not believe that Monsanto could or should be expected to solve this problem on its own. "We studied what Borlaug did, which was work with local NGOs, tapped research institutes, brought disparate groups together. The new piece today is getting big companies involved, which hopefully means we can get this done much faster than Borlaug did."
Mr Grant nonetheless regards this approach as "good business", not least because the developing world will be a huge source of future growth for the firm. Monsanto sells more GM cotton in India than in America. Already, most of the countries where GM seed is sown are emerging ones. Around 90% of the world's 12m farmers with at least a hectare planted with GM seed are smallholders in developing countries. America has 250,000-300,000 active farmers; India has 15m cotton farmers alone, several million of whom Monsanto says it has reached already.
This reinforces the firm's fundamental message, that it is a driving force for higher farm productivity-and that higher productivity, not a return to the methods of the past, is likely to be the true source of agricultural sustainability.
In America, GM seed has already brought about huge increases in productivity, says Mr Grant. He has no time for the "Malthusian thing about running out of food. This is eminently solvable." He sees huge potential in merely raising yields in the rest of the world to levels already achieved in America thanks to better farming practices, Roundup and improved seed productivity. American farmers average about 160 bushels (of 56lb, or 25.5kg) of corn per acre per year, against 60 in Brazil and 27 in sub-Saharan Africa (22 excluding South Africa). Moreover, even in America there is the potential to double yields again. Already, farmers in Iowa are producing as many as 200 bushels an acre.
Mr Grant believes that 300 bushels are achievable by 2030. "We have just scratched the surface," he says, pointing out that after the first GM crops came on the market in 1996, it took ten years for 1 billion acres to be planted. But the second billion took only another three years. "We are where transistors were in the 1970s."
Review of the book: Genetic Glass Ceilings - Transgenics for Crop Biodiversity
- Ian Crute, BW, Food Sec. (2009) 1:479-480; Published online: 22 November 2009 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. & International Society for Plant Pathology 2009; DOI 10.1007/s12571-009-0043-x
"Genetic glass ceilings: Transgenics for crop biodiversity" by Jonathan Gressel; The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 461pp. 2008 Ian Richard Crute; http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/title_pages/9174.html
Professor Jonathan Gressel has written a thought-provoking book that contains something for everyone with an interest in the application of modern genetics to crop-based agriculture. I hope it will be read by both enthusiasts and sceptics about the application of genetic engineering to crop genetic improvement. I also hope that it will be read by those who see agriculture as a threat to the integrity of ecosystems as well as those who promote biotechnology as an essential element of future global food security. In writing this book, Professor Gressel draws on his own very considerable experience as a plant and agricultural scientist who has always maintained a proximity to the latest developments in understanding plant form and function while promoting practical crop biotechnology as a route to resolving agricultural problems and effective weed control in particular.
Professor Gressel has a reputation as an independent, creative and often provocative scientific thinker and in this respect the book does not disappoint. The central thesis of the book is controversial but the reader does not need to subscribe fully to the views expressed to enjoy and derive value from Professor Gressel's writing. In summary, there are three building blocks to the thesis.
First, the opinion is promoted that there is insufficient unexploited genetic variation within the genepools of our major staple crop species to enable the increases in yield, nutritional quality and environmental adaptation that will be required in the generations to come (the glass ceilings of the title). Second, the processes of demonstrating predictable gene function and direct gene transfer (i.e. genetic engineering) are considered to be a natural and essential extension of the domestication process which commenced thousands of years ago. Finally, the wealth of as yet unexploited plant biodiversity must be valued and conserved to provide both the potential for novel domestication but, also and particularly, the genes that will be vital for further refinement and adaptation of the relatively few crops on which humanity has now become dependent. The book assembles an impressive body of evidence to support these contentions and the author pulls no punches in his criticism of those who prefer to ignore evidence and adopt dogmatic stances that are founded elsewhere than in science. It is both a strength and a weakness that Professor Gressel does not appear to have a particular target readership in mind as he writes. The result is a book with broad appeal that deserves to be widely read but may unfortunately be ignored by those who might learn most. For example, Chapter 4 deals comprehensively with biosafety and deserves to be fully digested by those who implement and administrate regulatory regimes. In places, such as Chapters 3 and 4 (again), the book takes on a text book like quality and will have value to students of crop science (while those without much knowledge of molecular biology, genetics and population biology may find these chapters hard going).
Elsewhere, such as Chapters 1, 2 and 5 the content should be readily appreciated by, and will reward, the interested lay reader. The case studies (Chapters 6 to 22) which comprise the bulk of the book can be read individually and, throughout, the text is enriched by a wealth of interesting practical illustrations about particular crops and cropping practices in a range of international settings including success and failure in the application of science. These Chapters provide a rich source for those who teach students as well as much historical wisdom and thoughtfulness for those who are practically involved in I. R. Crute (*)
programmes of crop genetic improvement; Professor Gressel has assembled a splendid compendium of examples, with useful bodies of data presented in clear graphs and tables. Anyonewho reads even just a selection of the case studies will gain an understanding of the diverse ways in which agricultural science has proceeded, how much fitter for purpose our crops could be and how we might best proceed in future, in the quest for more productivity and better quality. This is a well written and well researched book; it is a rewarding read even though this reviewer and other readers will, I am sure, not subscribe to all the views expressed. For example, nothing I read in this book dissuaded me from the view that in the genepool of many important crops (including major cereals), and their close relatives, there is still much valuable and untapped genetic variation that will become increasingly accessible to crop breeders and genetic engineers as informative genomic analyses advance on the back of sequence data volumes, sophisticated phenotyping and computational power.
I know that I shall refer to this book a good deal in the future. The cited bibliography is impressive but the book's value also derives from the obvious personal experience and insight of the author who writes about the science and practice of agriculture with genuine authority. In summary, I particularly recommend this book to three constituencies: those who teach students of plant and agricultural science about genetic improvement for the lively, inspiring examples; those who are committed to finding solutions to crop problems for the examples of creative ways forward; and those who are engaged in policy and regulatory work for the proportionately laid out arguments about what is important and what is not.
I.R. Crute Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Warwickshire, UK; Ian.Crute@ahdb.org.uk
How About the Term "Transgenosis"?
- Boris Levenko, Ukraine
Dear AgBioView colleagues
I would like to express my point of view concerning the use of term 'transgenesis' in a modern scientific literature. Even a book “Tree transgenesis” is published. Genesis means development : morphogenesis, ontogenesis etc. But here we are dealing with transfer of genes, not with the development of trans.
It seems to me that it's time to start to use the term transgenosis, which was used in the early publications describing the transfer of genes.
Prof., Dr.Sci. Boris A.Levenko, Head of Genetics and Biotechnology Lab, Natl. Botanical Gardens of NAS of Ukraine 01014 Kiev, Ukraine