Monsanto: Reddit Ask Me (Almost) Anything
Breaking News: Monsanto Distinguised Science Fellow, Dr. Fred Perlak, did a Reddit Science AMA (Ask Me Anything) this morning. Given the amount of veg community interest in genetically modified foods, I thought it best to post a link to the AMA and give some background to those that may be unfamiliar with why this is a big deal.
A lot of information has spread around the news with regard to the business operations of Monsanto – from allegations that they sue farmer’s over their seeds accidentally spreading to farms to blame for the suicides of 200,000 cotton farmers in India (indirectly – many farmers had trouble with their cotton crops not growing successfully and fell into extreme financial difficulty). This is the company that’s responsible for Agent Orange, after all. It’s important to note that large, international companies like Monsanto are regularly involved in litigation due to the nature of their size, particularly in this case, as their products affect our food on such a large scale.
This post is not meant to spin your view of the company one way or another, as much as it suggests we enlighten ourselves as to what kinds of things are being done with genetically modified foods by the head honcho of the worldwide practice itself. Please click the link above to check out the interview and on a particularly interesting note, click here for the pre-interview thread that laid out the rules for anyone that wanted to participate in the AMA, where posters were given the opportunity to get their questions for today’s AMA with Dr. Perlak pre-approved.
In Hawaii many companies like Monsanto take advantage of the year-around growing to cultivate seed crops (e.g. bt-corn seed) instead of growing crops for consumption. One of the arguments mentioned by anti-GMO activists is that the cultivation of seed crops as opposed to crops for consumption require extreme levels of pesticides and chemicals over and above what would normally be seen on the mainland. Does the cultivation of seed crops require substantively more chemical/pesticide use than crops grown for consumption? Can you explain the difference between the cultivation of GMO seed crops as opposed to GMO crops used for consumption?
The biggest difference for Monsanto on Hawaii is that it is primarily a nursery especially on Maui. We grow corn 10 feet at a time- that is 10-15 plants per row 25 sq feet. The water and the nitrogen for those plants is closely monitored through drip irrigation. The nursery is very valuable- it gets a lot of attention, almost daily inspection.
Problems are seen earlier than in traditional production, so we use control measures earlier in the process and try to use integrated pest management, we use fewer herbicides because the corn is hand harvested.
We are working to be more transparent about our pesticide use in Hawaii, on average its pretty close to what a normal farmer on Hawaii would use. Even though we grow 3-4 crops per season, each acre of land only gets one crop per year.
While I am, in general, pro-GMO, one of my concerns is that the homogeneous nature of GMOs leaves the world food supply open to swift, devastating ruin. Namely- if an organism, be it a microbe or an insect, evolves to eat or destroy the mono-crop and evade the pest control measures, there is a serious risk of a catastrophic loss. Biodiversity and natural mutation/selection tends to ensure that something survives, even if the large part of a species is destroyed. Is there a strategy/backup plan in th event that nature outpaces research?
TL;DR: Mono crops present a tasty, somewhat easy target, so if nature finds a way, is there a backup plan? Biodiversity is critical to biome survival, so does Monsanto take into account potentially catastrophic evolutionary events?
Genetic diversity/biodiversity are important concepts in a sustainable agricultural environment. Monsanto markets worldwide over 500 different varieties of hybrid corn on an annual basis. These differ by maturity, disease tolerance, plant architecture, and other attributes, which are valued by the farmers for their specific locale.
Farmers have learned long ago, not to plant a single variety across their field. Many farmers will plant there own tests of not only Monsanto’s material, but of other seed companies to compare performance. This is a very competitive field with very astute customers.
If you are a farmer in Central Illinois you probably have access to 50 or more varieties of corn that could fit your farming operation. They all may have the same biotech trait, but that represents significant diversity.
I am curious, how does Monsanto evaluate the potential environmental and human health impact of its products during development? Is this something that is at the forefront during ideation, or does it only come to bear as a product gets closer to launch? How has this changed over the years as your firm has learned more about transgenic technology?
We go through a 5-6 phase process as a part of commercialization. There is rigorous review at each stage with increasing costs as you rise from stage to stage. The reviews involve safety, product concept, and eventually value. Killing a project at a late stage is very expensive, that is a bad day for the business. Killing a project early is easy and we never compromise on safety. We once worked on a protein that had excellent activity against a key pest, after extensive review we suspected that a small number of people in the US (I mean less than 500 out of 330 million) could be allergic, we stopped the project. As a result we continue to extensively test for potential allergens.
Can you elaborate on what that testing looks like? I think a lot of people are concerned that transgenic crops don’t receive enough attention in terms of how they will impact humans and the rest of the environment. Specifics may help to alleviate some of those fears.
Without too much detail there are 2 testing arenas.
The first is the agronomic fit and performance of a trait in a plant. Is the plant “normal,” does it grow like variety the farmer currently uses except it has a new transgenic trait. This is called “substantial equivalence.” Parameters looked at are growth characteristics, levels of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, oil- all of the characteristics that are important to the crop. We also know where the gene inserts in the plant DNA. It also is assessed for its environmental safety for example would it become a plant pest, would it outcross with susceptible species, would it take over roadsides- all the things we might worry about in the environment. This is regulated by the USDA.
The second arena is the safety of the crop for consumption regulated by the EPA (depending on the trait) and the FDA. For example in Bt- what happens to it when it is ingested by animals or humans? Some studies are done in animal models, some are done in tests designed to replicate human digestion.
Many of the animal studies are 90 days because experimentally it has been determined that this length of study is sufficient to identify problems. By experimentation, it has been demonstrated and accepted by the scientific community that longer studies do not add value.
In your own opinion, what is the biggest issue with GMO’s that’s actually an issue? What is being done to combat it?
I’ve been interested in GMO’s since I first heard of them, and there’s so much misinformation out there that I can’t help but feel that real issues with the science are being overlooked in favor of flashier conspiracy theories, myths, and pseudoscience. I’d like to hear from someone who knows the science what the actual problems are, and how they’re planning to handle them moving forward.
IMHO It is the stewardship of the traits that is the potential biggest issue with GMOs. For example, if you have insect resistant plants you should have a resistance management plan which includes input from the best scientists in that area.
Refuge in a bag is a good way to help delay resistance in corn. In this case insect resistant corn and conventional corn are mixed in the same bag. So the concept of “refuge” is built in. Refuge is the concept of providing genetic diversity so that selection doesn’t result in resistance. In this case the conventional corn will be eaten by insects and keep the selection of resistance to a manageable level.
But doesn’t necessarily work in cotton, a separate refuge has to be planted. The refuge concept has been successful in delaying resistance to Bt cotton.
edit: to clarify on why Bt cotton has a seperate planting refuge- the biology of the pests are different and it requires a different solution. For example the insect worms of cotton move from plant to plant so they could grow on the no-dose conventional plant, get bigger and then be harder to kill on the Bt plant. This could have the opposite desired effect and encourage resistant.
Image source: http://media1.fdncms.com/inlander/imager/syringes-gas-masks-and-frankenfood-visuals-of-the-gmo-debate/u/original/2201637/applelime.jpg