Skeptics Ask Monsanto

posted in: Talks & Interviews | 7

Around the world there are “Skeptics in the Pub” events that gather folks from the local community who are interested in issues of science, technology, health, and sometimes explore the more ephemeral things like the paranormal – ghost busting and Bigfoot sorts of discussions might ensue. You should look around and see if there are folks in your area that host these evenings, and you’ll find folks interested in hearing about and discussing these wide-ranging and fascinating topics, with beer or cider or perhaps a soda. Personally, I hang around at the Boston Skeptics events, but these exist world-wide. Look for one around you. They are fun and interesting and can help support local venues.

Earlier this year I asked if the Boston Skeptics would be interested in hearing about GMOs – but from the Monsanto side. Like good skeptics, they were open to hearing this side of a controversial topic, even if they didn’t quite agree on the issues. I had met a neighbor of mine who works at the Cambridge MA Monsanto labs, Larry Gilbertson. And he was willing to present at the pub. With all agreed, we set it up for an evening of conversation.

The format would be thus: Larry would present some of his backstory in science, and some information about Monsanto. And then I would join him up front for a question-and-answer segment. SkepticsAskMonsanto_2 Beforehand, I collected questions from social media from skeptics, from several places. The reason I sought out skeptics is because that’s the group we are taking with here, and their grasp of GMO issues has been, in my experience, not quite the same as the wider general public. They seem comfortable with the science (in general). But there are issues on which they still want some clarity and understanding.

I gathered questions from Reddit, as you can see in this thread, in the Skeptics subreddit. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) forum also had comments. We offered folks the chance to ask questions on our Meetup page and Facebook. From their answers to my inquiry about what they wanted to know, I made a word cloud of the replies. And I used those exact comments to form the questions for the slides I used here (available at the bottom of this page).

The awesome team at Boston Skeptics includes François de La Bruère-Terreault who taped and edited the resulting evening. The video presentation and the slides are shown. It’s about 2 hours long. I’ll summarize some of the discussion and the things I learned below. But there’s certainly more in the whole video, so have a look if you have some time for that.

For about the first half hour, Larry talks about how he got into science and joined Monsanto. And there’s some background about the company. There’s a part that covers the technology and the process of making GMOs. After that, we start the question segment (~36min if you want to look for the different sections).

I explained to everyone about the question collection, but also that we would take questions from the floor. I noted that the skeptics’ questions boiled down to some main themes, including: biodiversity, patents and legal issues, monopoly and reputation, agreements like the technology agreement and the academic research licenses, new crops and new technologies, and transparency of testing. It was also very interesting what skeptics didn’t ask – nobody raised the issues of lumpy rats or labels. As I said, skeptics are not quite the same as the wider public.

At about 40 minutes, we begin to discuss biodiversity. Is there really only one kind of corn out there, which is all at risk from a single pathogen? How long does pest resistance last? Larry explains that there are lots of varieties out there. One trait – like the Bt trait for insect resistance – is introgressed into many corn lines. So farmers in Indiana have different varieties than farmers in Georgia or Massachusetts, or in South Africa. Traits important regionally–which may not be GMO–are needed by different farmers, and so the maize lines need to reflect that. And pest resistance–it depends on the pest and the trait how long it will last. And how multiple modes of action, or changing strategies, delays problems. But this is not an issue unique to GMOs. Conventional strategies develop resistance, facing the same problem. We talked about how Ug99 “rust never sleeps” (sensu Borlaug, not sensu Neil Young). And they are very well aware that situations like what led to the Irish potato famine need to be avoided.

At about 56 minutes, we move to patents and lawsuit issues. We covered the basics of patents–that there are plant variety protections, and separate utility patents for specific functions like genes that can control Army worm, and method patents for some process of making transgenics, for example. Some crops may be covered by combinations of these patents. We discussed the patent-related lawsuits (~1:06), for re-using seeds, and for enforcing patents. Larry noted that there has never been a suit for accidental presence of patented materials from wind-blown pollen. The only suits have been for deliberate misuse. He also noted that Monsanto is not unique in having the Technical Agreement contracts. He brought copies of theirs and examples from other companies as well.

Some patented traits–like the first generation of Roundup Ready soybeans, are now off patent. Larry noted these are available from university breeders, like this one: Arkansas releases first Roundup Ready soybean. I chuckled at the availability of open source Monsanto seeds. We discussed that it’s not only GMOs that have patents–hybrids may be patented. Other plant varieties are too. I didn’t know that they are required to deposit seeds in the ATCC (American Type Culture Collection) repositories. (~1:08) You can buy them yourself from there. I did a search for “corn” and found quite a lot. Here’s a Monsanto example (GMO). Here’s a Pioneer hybrid sample (not GMO). Syngenta, too. The links to the patents are right on the pages at ATCC.

In my slides you can also see that I’ve looked into the patent issue before. There’s a paper that evaluated the holdings of nucleic acid sequences that I explored a while ago (Not Quite a Myriad of Gene Patents). I noted that, in fact, Monsanto is way behind other outfits in patents on genes. DuPont/Pioneer has far more than anyone, actually. And the University of California and the US government are also kicking their butt. I asked why there’s a March Against Monsanto and not March Against DuPont/Pioneer. I am still not sure I understand this…

We turned to the use of the seeds by farmers and by researchers. We talked about the Technology Agreement again, and looked a bit closer at one at some of the features it contains (~1:14). I noted that a while back Brian Scott, a farmer, posted his tech agreement and why he adheres to it. If you want to have a look you can see his discussion here: I Occupy Our Food Supply Everyday. We also discussed the fact that you are not bound by the agreement beyond that 1 year. And that you are not required to buy Monsanto-brand chemicals. Roundup is off patent, it was noted. I said that a farmer told me they do not buy their pesticides from the same companies:

This flowed into the discussion of monopoly, and Monsanto’s reputation, and how that may be impacting other projects. (~1:18). I showed virus-resistant cassava and Bt eggplant projects as examples. Larry noted that it is frustrating to think that the Monsanto reputation issues loom over those totally unrelated efforts, and like that of Golden Rice too. He noted that their customers are farmers, and they have a good relationship with them. He noted that they have a fine reputation with Wall Street. But the parts in between that, not so much. This allowed other people to control the dialog and discussion, which has distorted the understanding of the technology. And that’s why they are doing more outreach.

At this point we turned to the issues of academic researchers using Monsanto products in research, and claims that academics can’t do research and publish (~1:25). We talked about the Academic Research License, which bubbled up as an issue in 2009. Agreements had been available, but complex and a nuisance for researchers, so companies found a way to cut through the issues and use a sort of blanket agreement for many universities. There are some things they can’t do–like reverse-engineer the technology, re-sell it, etc. They ask to see the publications in case there’s any intellectual property they should know about, but that’s not to influence the papers. But Larry said that Monsanto cannot prevent them from publishing.

New traits and new technologies came up next (~1:29). They are actively looking at other technologies like gene editing. And they look for new and useful traits. They are also researching cisgenics, using genes from wild relatives of the same species. The GMO potato from Simplot was one example of this. But there has to be a business case for them. I asked him to work on allergen-free peanuts. But allergy is complicated, and keeping a supply chain completely isolated is also challenging. I’m not convinced they’ll get to my Reese’s… alas!

The content and transparency of safety studies was covered next (~1:32). Their safety tests are for FDA, USDA, and EPA in the US, and many other agencies around the world. They look at safety for humans and/or animals, and safety for the environment, using 100s of different tests. The specific tests depend on the trait and crop. We discussed the regulatory agencies involved, including what’s mandatory and what’s not a bit later on again too (~1:43).

A philosophical question from the floor came up: an attendee asked Larry if the thought that folks who object to GMOs are “anti-science” (~1:39). Larry said that wasn’t necessarily so. Public perception on many science-related issues varies from that of scientist perceptions, as we’ve seen with the Pew studies. But he finds that when people start to talk to him about GMOs, often they are really conflating issues about “big ag” or business practices.

Other free-range questions included things about other companies that push non-GMO foods, like Chipotle and Whole Foods. How different would the world be without GMOs today? He spoke a bit about precision agriculture and the potential improvements with that. We talked about the fact that there are no animal genes in crops–and Monsanto and the other companies have avoided putting cute or scary animal genes in foods, not due to regulatory barriers, though. But I noted that there have been projects like a rice with human genes as a medical treatment, and the ZMAPP Ebola treatment with humanized antibodies in tobacco. But Larry noted that was a different arena – sometimes called “pharming” or “farmaceuticals” – with pharmaceuticals made in plant systems. This is not what Monsanto is involved in.

Finally, the top rated issue from Reddit skeptics was Shill T-shirts (~1:45). Everyone in the skeptic community who chats on GMOs is called a shill so often that we just think it’s funny now, and they want to be rewarded for this. Larry assures me there is no shill army. But there is a Monsanto store where you can buy shirts if you want to. He did bring us shopping bags, though, so the attendees can say we got something from Monsanto.

There’s more chatter, but I didn’t want to write a transcription. If there’s stuff you wanted more clarification from the video, or something else to ask, feel free to chime in below. We’ve been asked to reprise this for upcoming local skeptics groups (Cape Ann Skeptics, Granite State Skeptics), so if you are local to them–keep an eye out for the dates. We are also open to ideas on ways to improve this. Constructive comments welcomed.

References

Graff, G., Phillips, D., Lei, Z., Oh, S., Nottenburg, C., & Pardey, P. (2013). Not quite a myriad of gene patents Nature Biotechnology, 31 (5), 404-410 DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2568

My slides: Skeptics Ask Monsanto.

Follow Mary Mangan:
Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.