A while back, I interviewed a plant geneticist who expressed extreme frustration over the measly funds that were available for research into biotechnology.
The scientist’s own research was quite exciting in and of itself because of its potential to profoundly improve current agricultural problems across the world by improving yield, while reducing fertilizer overuse.
Intrigued, I asked the scientist about possibilities of commercializing the plant varieties soon. In response, I was told there were only a few companies motivated to invest in the research and there was little chance of raising public funds — given wide sentiment against genetic engineering.
The only hope, the plant researcher said, was that Monsanto would be interested and, then, the scientist suggested — off the record — to me that, “maybe Monsanto likes it that way.” Without competition from other companies or public funds, the company basically had cornered the market on opportunities regarding agricultural biotechnology.
Of course, the scientist’s speculation wasn’t one rooted in evidence or a belief that there was really some grand conspiracy involving Monsanto. Apart from trying to make a profit, the scientist said there’s really no evidence to believe that the company had anything but best intentions for improving agriculture for farmers.
But the scientist’s speculation caught my attention as a clear example of why — among other reasons given by bloggers Rachael Ludwick and Keith Kloor — efforts against biotechnology and biotechnology giants, such as the so-called March Against Monsanto, are so misguided in their goals.
The march is “just a march against a cartoon villain,” as Ludwick writes, and the company’s current position as the world’s largest producer of genetically engineered seeds is really just a “symptom” of much more complicated problems related to our food system and sustainability.
Ludwick writes that “being against something seems satisfying, but being FOR something actually changes the world.” Maybe that “FOR something” should be public investment into the very research scientists are pursuing to truly help the world by offering farmers — including poor farmers of developing countries — technologies that could improve yields and reduce agricultural pollution.
Open seed data
Another “FOR something” could also be policy that would require private companies to make some of the information they have on segments of plant genes (e.g. nutrition segments) public domain. Recently at the Global Food Security Symposium, Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Marc, Inc., argued that an open policy could drastically help improve crops and nutritional outcomes, especially for children, in developing countries.
“The time is now,” Shapiro said. “We cannot become prisoners of yield in crops.”
Currently, he explained, 40 percent of children in India, 30 percent of children in Africa, and 7 percent of children in the United States suffer from stunting due to hunger and poor nutrition. If trends continue, another generation or two will suffer the same fate. ”I’m not willing to accept that as a scientist,” he said.
He called for private companies to put nutritional data from seed research in the public domain as Mars, Inc., has done with the Cacao Genome Database. He said companies need not worry about releasing data about specific genetic traits that bring them profits, but simply the data that could help university scientists improve nutritional conditions for the poor.
“We need to talk about nutrition security, not food security,” he said.
Support for Dr. Shapiro’s call for open data policy on seed research could be that “FOR something” that “actually changes the world”, as Ludwick explains. Specifically, it could mean less starvation, nutritional deficiency, and stunting in children all around the world.
Why march against a “cartoon villain” that achieves so very little? Want to stick it to large biotech companies? Why not march instead for the public investment into agricultural biotechnology research and an open data policy on industry seed research.
Photo credit: Worldbank - Agricultural advisor splits open a fruit to expose cacao seeds, used to make chocolate. Colombia.