Sharing science Monsanto trying to expand biotech's reach
Sunday, October 21, 2001
ST. LOUIS -- In the debate about the use of biotechnology in agriculture, the name "Monsanto Co." usually isn't far from mention.
Pioneers in the burgeoning industry, scientists at the St. Louis-based company spent decades developing techniques allowing the genetic modification of plants, including American cash crop stables like corn and soybeans.
Such modifications allow the plants to withstand sprayings of the company's Roundup herbicide, or protect themselves against certain insects.
The results are impressive and have convinced thousands of farmers to embrace the technology. "Roundup Ready" soybeans account for 68 percent of those grown in the United States, and seeds containing Monsanto biotechnology traits were planted on 103 million acres in 2000.
But despite the success of the company's products here, reaction overseas has been markedly different -- especially in Europe, where there remains a moratorium on the approval of any new genetically modified crops.
Blinded by enthusiasm
Monsanto concedes it was blinded by its own enthusiasm for its technology and products.
"We missed the fact that this technology raises major issues for people: issues of ethics, of choice, of trust," said Monsanto CEO Hendrik Verfaille in a 2000 speech.
That address included the company's remodeled "pledge," in which Monsanto promised to bring the efforts of its research to "resource-poor farmers in the developing world." Chances are, those efforts won't ever turn the kind of profit that Roundup Ready soybeans do.
Still, those efforts -- such as developing a papaya that's resistant to ringspot virus, which can devastate entire papaya crops -- make good on the company's desire to make biotechnology as commonplace as the hoe or combine in a farmer's field.
"Long term, we're talking about business position. A rising tide floats all boats," said Robert Horsch, the company's vice president in charge of product and technology cooperation. "We have a pretty big boat."
Monsanto has a directed effort to share certain parts of the company's research and work with scientists in developing countries.
"We have a variety of crops and products that we're not going to invest in commercially," Horsch said.
Help with sweet potatoes
Last year, for example, field tests began in Kenya on a virus-resistant sweet potato developed after 10 years of joint research between Monsanto and the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. The work was started in part by Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist invited by Monsanto to work at the company while completing postdoctorate study.
Because sweet potatoes are easy to grow and can be stored underground indefinitely, they're a staple in the diet of millions of people in the developing world. But the virus that attacks the plant can reduce yields by up to 80 percent.
"Breeding wasn't going to do it," Horsch said of efforts to naturally fight the virus. "It just looked hopeless."
But while the crop fits into the area of biotechnology and Monsanto had no plans of investing in for commercial sales, it "was just a natural fit" for its sharing program, Horsch said.
Critics of biotechnology in foods often object to their use in the third world, arguing they fail to address food and nutrition problems created by poverty. But in Wambugu, the company also gets an ardent ambassador for biotechnology in Africa.
Monsanto has set up similar relationships with researchers in Mexico working on virus resistance for potatoes and in Southeast Asia for papaya. Its decision to release its technology free of charge to research-ers working on Vitamin A-enhanced rice -- as well as posting its "rough draft" of the rice genome on the Internet -- has received much attention, from both protesters and proponents.
"This is a model that seems to work," said Gerard Barry, director of research in the sharing program. "It's a process that is getting things done."