Want to stick it to Monsanto? March for public investment and open data

Cacao seeds

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.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

14 thoughts on “Want to stick it to Monsanto? March for public investment and open data

  1. Just posted this on the wrong piece, and I have no idea how I did that. Anyway, here it is:

    Enjoyed that. And I appreciate the optimism. But I don’t think I share it. In conversations with opponents of GMOs, some of them make noises about stuff like: oh, if it wasn’t for the patents it might be useful someday…. But when you actually push them on it–turns out the goalposts will move. Look at what happened with Rothamsted last year.

  2. This is a Monsanto supported blog. Don’t be fooled. As with Nazi Germany, there are times we need to be against something/someone. Monsanto has gone way beyond something we don’t need to be against. Until they are limited by law, and politicians who support them are not re-elected, not much else can be done to save our food supply. We have tried all that nice stuff, and can’t get legislative support or funding. We marched to increase awareness. I am all for BEING FOR BUYING ORGANIC!

    1. Clearly Nancy you are a shill for the $6 billion organic industry. Not really. Sure sounds lame. I’m a scientist in academic science and this article is spot on. Instead of discounting it, reach out to us, the scientists that work for you… even those that work in organic/sustainable production would also agree with David’s points. My username is my real name, I’d be glad to help you with your questions.

  3. David, you are right on. Real solutions, solid science, is dying on lab shelves and in refrigerators that could compete against BigAg. We can’t commercialize it– costs too much, takes too long. Opponents of biotech create social and legislative barriers that freeze technology that could help the world’s hungry, limit environmental insults and help farmers compete. Public science funding from the USDA was cut 5.6% this year, and before that only 5-10% of grant proposals were funded. We need greater investment in pubic science, not fear mongering and false accusations.

  4. That’s an amusing anecdote from the interview, thanks for that!

    While I’m far from a raving Monsanto fan I continue to find my food-conscious friends who adopt such extremist anti-GMO positions distressing. The real harms of, say, roundup-ready crops in my view is that they are built around heavy herbicide use. This is not specifically a GMO issue; after all, there is at least one seed corporation that has developed a corn variety resistant to their proprietary herbicide via “traditional” breeding methods with chemical mutagens. None of the genetic engineering, all the same real problems.

    I encourage my friends to entertain the idea of GM technology being used to “add good” to crops, like improved nutrition or disease resistance, in hopes that someday such applications can take the market from current GM tech that I feel “enables bad” in terms of cultivation practices. The endless repetition of “GMOs are poison!” can be a tough hump for some to get over, however.

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