Who makes GE crops?

When it comes to genetic engineering in agriculture, most of the attention on the web and in films focuses on Monsanto when there are several other big companies (and a lot of little ones) that also work in this area. Reuters has just published a list of the big six, for your perusal:

  • Monsanto Co (MON.N) – Based in St. Louis, the company posted record net sales of $11.7 billion and net income of $2.1 billion for fiscal 2009. Among its key products are corn, soybeans and cotton that tolerate weed-killing treatments and resist pests.
  • Pioneer Hi-Bred – Subsidiary of DuPont (DD.N) based in Johnston, Iowa. Produces, markets and sells hybrid seed in nearly 70 countries worldwide and is the closest rival to Monsanto for market share in U.S. biotech corn seed market. Revenue totaled $4 billion in 2008.
  • Syngenta AG (SYNN.VX) – The Basel, Switzerland-based company operates in 90 countries and generated 2008 sales of $11.6 billion. Collaborating with International Rice Research Institute to improve rice.
  • Dow AgroSciences – Subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co (DOW.N) based in Indianapolis, Indiana. With global sales of $4.5 billion, company offers insect-protected corn and cotton, among other seed products, and is expanding its research into wheat.
  • BASF (BASF.DE) – Based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, this leading global chemical company is increasingly focusing its health and nutrition division on plant biotechnology to increase crop yields. Like its rivals, BASF is working on a drought-tolerant corn seed. Revenue in its agricultural division totaled 3.4 billion euros in 2008.
  • Bayer CropScience AG – The unit of Bayer AG (BAYGn.DE), had 2008 sales of 6.4 billion euros and operates in 120 countries. The company is pursuing 56 “bioscience” research projects involving six crops.

Hopefully people will come to know that there is more to the private sector than just Monsanto. Lists of the big ones are easy to make, though, what about a profile of the little companies? Start-ups in Africa, South America? What about China?

This brings up another point. The perception is often that genetic engineering is a “corporate technology,” which is a nonsensical term. Technologies are not “corporate” or not, but they can be used by corporations, or not. Is Organic Ag a “corporate technology?” Corporations do use it, and market it. Biodynamic Agriculture is literally owned by Demeter, what does that make it?

Part of this perception that genetic engineering is a “corporate” thing, as opposed to a “democratic” thing is that most people know that private companies commercialize GE crops, even if they know know the name of Monsanto. However there are numerous government labs and agencies, university research labs and groups, and non-profit organizations that also do research on genetic engineering, some of them have even developed and released (or will soon release) GE cultivars. For example, Papaya’s resistant to the Ringspot Virus were developed by the University of Hawaii and Cornell among others. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is working on cassava breeding and engineering for protein, mineral, and pro-Vitamin A content as well as disease resistance and resistance to post-harvest degradation and reduced cyanide poisoning for African countries. The BioCassava Plus project is part of the HarvestPlus program, which includes many other similar projects such as Golden Rice.

What are some others?

I imagine that not every academic lab wants to cry out “Hey we’re making GMOs!” when their research can be a target for vandalism. When I came to UC Davis in the fall of 1999, some fields and a field building were destroyed as a protest against genetic engineering – which destroyed no GE plants, just a grad student’s years of work. The same year, a research building in Michigan was burnt to the ground, and members of the Earth Liberation Front were caught and sentenced just last year. (While I worked in one academic lab some years later that was studying drought tolerance in tomatoes, a broken window pane in the greenhouse was cause for brief alarm while we made sure that no one broke in.)

Although the research environment in the US is a lot more calm today than at the turn of the milennium, and few cases of vandalism happen here (unlike, say, Germany or the UK), there is probably still reluctance on the part of academic labs to broadcast their work related to genetic engineering outside the scientific literature.

I once covered a protest that happened at UC Davis over the Dendrome Project, (article available here) a mere database of tree genome research, so you can see that even the suggestion of what might be going on in university labs can spark angry responses.

Nevertheless, there are many publicly-funded labs in the US and beyond that are doing work on genetic engineering, from making virus-resistant grapes to phytoremediation at UC Berkeley, and the public doesn’t really know about them. What public labs or research programs do you know about that are doing work on genetic engineering, from basic science to applied?

Any smaller companies working on GE crops? I know of one, Mendel Biotechnology, which has been mentioned here before. Then there’s Ventria Bioscience as well.

Let’s make a list so that maybe we could help people understand the full scope of who works in this field, and what they work on.

Reuters asks Is Monsanto the answer or the problem? Maybe part of the problem is that the media isn’t doing much to help people hear about anything other than Monsanto’s latest stock prices? Let’s help them out.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.