An Organic Farmer Walks Into Monsanto...And This is What Happened

Opinion

Rob bio photoBy Rob Wallbridge, Songberry Farm, Bristol, QC.

The story of how I came to be touring Monsanto starts back in late April and a blog post where I questioned the current tenor of the GMO debate. It caught the attention of Janice Person, a Social Media Director for Monsanto, who commented, “if you ever want to see what we do at Monsanto, I would love to arrange a visit.” As luck would have it, I passed through St. Louis on the first of August, and Janice was true to her word, arranging for a personal guided tour of their research facility.

It’s probably fair to say that both Janice and I experienced some trepidation as the date approached. Having completed Ontario’s Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program with existing and future employees of Monsanto, I didn’t see Monsanto as the devil incarnate, but I certainly wasn’t above criticizing them, and I do have a history of butting heads with certain of their employees. On the other hand, Janice and I had interacted over Twitter with civility, and in the weeks leading up to the visit, it seemed I was mostly raising ire from the radical anti-GMO side for refusing to buy into their fear-mongering.

I’d say that I arrived open-minded but skeptical. I expected that we’d be coming from radically different perspectives, and I was prepared to listen to theirs (how else could I expect anyone to listen to mine?). I was also prepared for the “hard sell” — lots of promotional propaganda. What I ended up getting was quite different, and four months later, I’m still digesting it.

Reading the Seed

The first thing I’ll say is that it’s very difficult for someone with an interest in agriculture, and especially seeds, not to be impressed with the scope, power, and potential of the research taking place at Monsanto. Even if that “someone” is philosophically opposed to much of what they are reported to do with that information, and even if that someone has been steeped in all of the anti-Monsanto rhetoric that’s out there. A scientist friend described the equipment found in the labs as “drool-worthy”. Having spent more time in fields than labs, I wasn’t immediately impressed with the sight of the machines, but once their capabilities were explained, I began to understand.

The “chipper” for example, is a machine conceived, developed, and built by Monsanto. It has the ability to take single seed, analyze the shape, manipulate its position, then remove a tiny chip from it, without damaging its germination potential. Another ($800,000!) machine can then analyze this chip’s genetic code and identify sites of interest. Meanwhile, chip and seed are still matched, so if a chip is found to have desirable characteristics, that exact seed can be planted. Instead of planting a whole bunch of seeds, waiting for them to grow, and then observing or testing for desirable characteristics, the selection can happen before the seed even hits the ground.

Janice noted that developing such a technology and investing in these machines could only be economically viable for a major crop like corn, but now that it was operational, they had been able to use it on several minor crops as well, including large-seeded vegetable like squash and cucumbers. This, of course, has nothing to do with genetic engineering — it’s simply being able to “see” the resulting plant before waiting for it to grow. It’s like using a computer instead of paper and pencil to perform advanced mathematics: the answer is exactly the same, the only difference is how long it takes to figure it out!

For better or worse, like it or not, a company the size of Monsanto is able to invest in this type of technology and is therefore able to advance crop variety development that much quicker. The volume of data that this technology can generate is mind-boggling, and our tour guide noted that many of the new hires at Monsanto are in IT (Information Technology). From here one or two things really matter to most people: the first is the question being asked, or the goal of the search: be it higher-yields, disease resistance, nutritional qualities, or herbicide tolerance. The second is the technology used to answer it: conventional breeding or genetic modification.

Technology

The current debate around biotechnology seems to be obsessed with the second issue rather than the first — with the “how” rather than the “why”. In my opinion, this is unfortunate because it distracts us from important discussions about the long-term sustainability of agriculture. Instead, we focus on a technology whose opponents believe makes a clear and distinct departure from traditional methods of plant breeding. Exploring the reality behind this perception and its implications is far more than I can cover here, though I hope to explore it further in the near future.

For now, let me say that visiting Monsanto dispelled much of my trepidation about the technology of genetic engineering. This photo literally shows genetic engineering happening. (Obviously, this is a small-scale demonstration of what actually takes place on a much larger scale in the development of new varieties.)

transformationThe seeds in these petri dishes are growing in a medium inoculated with a gene fragment that includes an Agrobacterium virus (the same thing that causes the burl on the tree pictured in the photo behind Dan). A certain (tiny) percentage of these seeds will be “infected” by the agrobacterium and successfully incorporate the desired trait into their own genome at a desired location. Once this is determined, variety development will proceed the same as it does for any other breeding program.

Holding these petri dishes in my hand, after having toured the labyrinth of hallways, offices, labs, growth chambers, and greenhouses of the research facility, made me marvel at how such a small thing, how one step in such a complex process, could generate so much fear and controversy. For me, what Monsanto is doing with this technology is much more interesting to explore.

Racing the Bugs

What Monsanto is best known for, of course, is their glyphosate-tolerance trait (RoundUp Ready) and the insect-killing Bt technology. Bt is obviously a big focus of tours at Monsanto, too, judging by the displays, videos, and information panels we viewed (see the above feature image).

Given the use of Bt in organic agriculture, it was also a hot topic for discussion among the three of us. We had talked a lot about various aspects of the technology, and the tour was wrapping up, when Dan finally worked up the nerve to broach the subject: “Why do organic farmers hate Bt crops so much, when they use it themselves?” I explained that from my perspective, they are very different applications: organic farmers use Bt sprays as one part of an integrated pest management approach, applying it only when necessary to affected crop areas. Genetically-modified Bt crops, on the other hand, are expressing the toxin in every cell of every plant throughout the growth cycle of the plant. Regardless of any environmental impact, this is still a recipe for resistance to a pest-control option that organic farmers have successfully utilized for decades, I explained.

With respect to farming, I’m not paranoid about genetic engineering and GMO crops, but I’ll continue to respect my customers’ choices and continue to abide by the organic certification standards I agree to follow

Both Janice and Dan admitted that this was a valid point. Earlier in the tour however, Dan had explained, while showing us the related labs and equipment, that Monsanto is aggressively seeking new insecticidal proteins like the Bt toxin to incorporate into crop varieties.  Their answer to the problem of resistance, which he reiterated during our later conversation, is to continue to find new proteins, or combinations of proteins, that will counter resistance and protect against a wider range of pests. The advances in the genetic screening technology we had viewed earlier made him confident that they would continue to be successful in this arms race against crop-munching insects.

Seeking Acceptance

As the tour wrapped up, Janice asked, “will organic agriculture ever accept GMOs?” At that point, I was quick to raise my hands and remind them that I could only speak for myself. The obstacles, I said, were huge. The first and most obvious would be developing traits that were attractive to organic farmers, and overcoming scientific objections: these would be the easy ones. Consumer acceptance would be absolutely essential, and once again, even if both organic farmers and consumers were comfortable with the product and the process, many of them object to the corporate concentration and control in the GMO seed market, not to mention a particular dislike for Monsanto itself! Given all this, I shrugged, it would be hard to imagine that happening, but I’ll never say never.

In recent years for example, I’ve been able to grow tomato varieties bred (using traditional methods, of course) to resist late blight. These varieties (as well as many others I grow) are protected by patents which stipulate that I can’t save and sell seeds from the plants I grow

Later, over a quick drink and bite to eat before my flight, I asked Janice how she responded when people brought up the less savoury aspects of Monsanto’s history. There are two sides to every story, she reminded me, but more importantly, people need to realize that the company took a new direction in 2000. This was interesting: I had always cynically regarded the shift as a “re-branding effort” or what one website calls “an attempt to try and escape its past.” But my tour had shown me a company very much focused on crop breeding and biotechnology. Later, Janice confirmed to me that while the company is working on improving some of their current herbicides, Monsanto has not been researching new active ingredients for years. The bulk of their eggs appear to be in the crop breeding basket, so to speak, although they are also investing heavily in agronomics and precision farming, including their “Integrated Farming Systems” platform and their acquisition of Climate Corporation.

Sustainability

“Are our definitions of sustainability converging?” asked Janice. Is Monsanto’s new focus more sustainable from the perspective of an organic farmer? It’s a challenging thought.

On the one hand, most farmers — organic, conventional and everything in between — welcome crop varieties which have been bred for disease resistance, or tolerance to environmental conditions (drought, wetness, cold, heat, etc.). In recent years for example, I’ve been able to grow tomato varieties bred (using traditional methods, of course) to resist late blight. These varieties (as well as many others I grow) are protected by patents which stipulate that I can’t save and sell seeds from the plants I grow. In my mind this is fair; I want the people who breed these plants to be fairly compensated for the work they do so that they can keep developing new varieties for me to grow!

On the other hand, a single-minded focus on seeds and traits as the answer to our challenges is problematic. There are other means to accomplish these same goals, and to my mind, they bring additional benefits. Building soils high in organic matter and aggregate stability, for example, will give the crops growing in them tremendous drought tolerance. At the same time, these soils will not be prone to erosion, and will be able to supply higher levels of a broad range nutrients, resulting in higher quality food for people and animals alike. Experience and research also demonstrates that crops grown in healthy, living soils will be more resistant to pests and disease, further reducing the need for expensive, potentially harmful inputs.

Of course, soil health is not a simple, short-term, off-the-shelf solution. Which creates a double-edged sword: farmers can’t buy it and see immediate results, and farmers don’t become reliant on companies to sell it to them, so corporations are much less likely to invest research dollars in this area (they only survive if they have products to sell!).

Balancing Choices

In the end, it’s about balance, choices, and responsibility.

With respect to farming, I’m not paranoid about genetic engineering and GMO crops, but I’ll continue to respect my customers’ choices and continue to abide by the organic certification standards I agree to follow. I’ll continue to focus on flavour and nutrition in my seed choices, but I’ll also test out new varieties that may prove to have useful traits. I’ll do my best to avoid getting trapped on a treadmill of relying on purchased inputs, but I won’t be afraid to invest in the health of my soils and crops.

When it comes to Monsanto and biotechnology in general, I’m going to recognize that there are issues that need to be addressed, particularly with respect to certain elements of the technology, certain applications of it, and the concentration of power and resources that often accompany it. But I’m not going to demonize the technology of any of the people or companies involved with it. I’m going to engage in respectful, informed discussions of these and related topics, but I’m not going to tolerate unscientific fear-mongering.

How about you?

 

Rob Wallbridge is an organic farmer in Western Quebec, Canada. He is also a father, extensionist, writer, speaker, and rabble-rouser. He advocates for high-quality organic food and informed communities in agriculture and beyond. He strives for balance in all things and is always happy to answer questions and engage in intelligent conversation. Rob tweets as @songberryfarm and explains what can’t be conveyed in 140 characters at his blog, The Fanning Mill

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