Because of the complexity of the topic, genetically modified organisms (GMO) are a topic complicated by a hodgepodge of science, pseudoscience, business, politics, social agendas, emotion, miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Feeding a world of nine billion people by mid-century will require continued agricultural productivity, efficiency and innovation, underscoring the magnitude of the GMO controversy.
"We realize this topic is broad and complex, and not something we can easily summarize in two sentences or a 30-second conversation," said Dan Clegg, land and resources manager for Monsanto on Maui, in a one-on-one interview with the Maui Weekly.
Dan Clegg, land and resource manager for Monsanto on Maui, and Carol Reimann, director of community and government affairs, help support the local community in which Monsanto employees live and work. Montanto provides extensive educational programs for teachers and students with a focus on the life sciences and agriculture. Monsanto encourages students to pursue higher education through its annual scholarship grant programs.
Photo: Cindy Schumacher
There are also many false and misleading statements about biotechnology and Monsanto circulating--especially on the Internet--which complicate the topic even more, Clegg added.
"Even so, we appreciate that there are folks who have questions and are genuinely interested in learning more," said Clegg. "Monsanto is committed to open and respectful dialogue. It's also important that the discussion be honest and vigorous and based on good information and science."
Monsanto, the St. Louis-based company that dominates the crop biotechnology business, operates in Hawai'i on Maui, Molokai and O'ahu, employing nearly 1,000 residents statewide. Along with its subsidiaries, it is a global provider of products for farmers, offering both biotech and conventional seeds to its customers.
Monsanto, now focused 100 percent on agriculture, is trying to direct the public's attention to empirical data and away from fear mongering, said Clegg.
One way Monsanto is endeavoring to correct erroneous information is by enthusiastically answering questions to consumers' most asked questions. Foremost, what exactly is a GMO and how does it work?
"Technically speaking, 'GMO' is not a correct term," Clegg said. "We prefer to use 'ag biotechnology' or 'genetically engineered (GE) crops.'"
The Biotechnology Industry Organization defines biotechnology as follows:
"At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology. Biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. Humans have used the biological processes of microorganisms for more than 6,000 years to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products (www.bio.org/node/517)."
"Fundamentally, biotechnology is one of multiple tools used in modern agricultural research," said Clegg. "At Monsanto, we use biotech as well as conventional research tools in our ongoing effort to develop better crops for farmers--similar to a homebuilder who relies on different types of equipment and skills in order to build a house."
For millennia, humankind has been cross-breeding plants with different genetic characteristics in order to develop plants with a new combination of genes that are better in some way; for example, plants that are heartier, better-tasting or that produce larger fruit, Clegg explained. He added that virtually every farm crop grown today--biotech, conventional and organic--has been genetically modified using traditional breeding practices.
In fact, Clegg said "Nature's genetic engineers, viruses and bacteria, have been doing this for a couple of billion years, and only some 30 years ago, scientists figured out how to do it. DNA and genes are continuously moved about in nature by viruses and bacteria as evidenced, for example, by the viral DNA inserted quite naturally into the human genome throughout our evolution."
Clegg said that over time, agricultural research has also improved.
"While conventional methods continue to play an important role in agriculture, biotechnology has been a very useful addition to the tool box," he said. "One reason is that it's considered to be far more precise than traditional methods."
In ag biotech research, scientists identify, isolate and transfer a specific gene from the DNA of one species into that of another in order to achieve a desired trait. For example, university researchers have been working to transfer a specific gene from spinach to oranges. They hope to develop a new variety of orange that will be immune to citrus greening, a devastating affliction that has forced Florida orange growers to destroy infected orchards.
"If successful, the new orange plant will not only be resistant to citrus greening, but its seeds will also have the improved trait--the same way that a new variety of tomato developed through conventional breeding will replicate itself in its seeds," said Clegg.
Newer GE crops are aimed at improving drought tolerance in plants, so farm crops can continue to thrive even under dry conditions, allowing farmers a greater yield.
"Genes can be inserted that help plants withstand many harmful things, such as insects, disease and other environmental stressors," added Clegg. "This permits plants to grow in conditions where they might not otherwise flourish."
Clegg said some other benefits of GE in agriculture include enhanced nutrient composition and food quality, such as reducing unhealthy trans-fats in foods while increasing heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Crops can also be modified to have increased nutritional value.
Biotechnology has allowed farmers to reduce their use of pesticides, enabled more crops to survive and helped growers increase production on their farms with a softer environmental footprint, Clegg said.
Developing a new biotech plant typically takes years. Monsanto's work in Hawai'i falls toward the later stages of that process. All of the seeds that Monsanto grows here are reviewed and approved for outdoor planting by federal and state regulatory authorities prior to being used, said Clegg.
"All GE plants have been assessed for safety prior to commercialization" he said. "To date, not one incident of harm can be scientifically documented."
Clegg said Monsanto develops seeds that are exported all over the world that have special qualities that can deliver a wide array of benefits to farmers.
"For example, we might be looking for a seed that has a high tolerance to drought conditions," he said. "To streamline and simplify the process, our researchers have created sophisticated diagnostic tools that allow us to peer into the core of millions of seeds--into their DNA--and locate the traits we need."
With biotechnology, key genes are inserted directly into the DNA of a single plant to make improvements.
"Often, we can investigate a potential product target through both biotechnology and breeding," said Clegg. "Together, biotechnology and advanced breeding are what make it possible for Monsanto to deliver the crop improvements that farmers need in order to meet growing global demands sustainably."
"All forms of agriculture--conventional, organic and biotech--are important to meeting the increasing needs of the world's growing population," said Clegg. "By embracing diverse methods of growing healthy crops, Hawai'i farmers help to meet the needs of the domestic and international market."
For more information on Monsanto, go to www.monsanto.com/hawaii or call (808) 879-4074.
For a "refresher course" on DNA and genes, a helpful resource can be found at www.genome.gov/25520880.