Agriculture and Biotechnology

Interview with Hugh Grant, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Monsanto Company, by Panorama Magazine (translated from the Italian), Dec. 15, 2005

Mr. Grant, after ten years of planting is biotechnology today still a good business?

For Monsanto, good business means helping farmers be more successful. It's less about the tools of our research and development and more about the benefits to our customers and to their customers.

Monsanto relies on two innovative engines-biotechnology and breeding. Biotechnology has been more obvious and more talked about in the past few years; breeding is largely an "untold" story. As the biotechnology traits become more and more widely available, our competitive difference once again becomes the breeding. The quality of our breeding and the resulting seed we provide to our customers is a key competitive driver for us now and will remain so in the future.

We see a rapid move to stacked traits - two or three traits in a single seed. Farmers are always focused on productivity, and those who have had the choice have clearly "voted" for stacks.

Multinationals are accused to get rich through the payment of royalties, to control the business of the chemical products used in biotechnology, to colonize the worldwide agriculture... What are your reactions to these statements?

The farmer is our customer, and, whether large or small, the farmer plants the best possible seed. He or she literally buys yield, and every year we compete for the chance to serve, based on the quality of our technology and innovation. When the farmer succeeds, then we succeed.

The reality is that the commercial seed market is only about 33 percent of the total volume of seeds used globally. Another 33 percent is farmer saved-seed and the remaining 33 percent comes from national or public institutions. More than 1,000 separate seed companies supply the commercial seed market globally. We're one of the largest commercial seed companies, but we what we offer is less than five percent of the world's seeds. We also actively license our traits to a number of other seed companies, which means farmers have many choices for accessing the technology.

In these 10 years what the world has gained by adopting ag biotech?

The benefits to farmers and the environment have been profound. We've seen higher crop yields. We've seen the elimination of millions of kilograms of pesticides from the environment. We've seen the decreased use of fuel use for agriculture.

A recent study by PG Economics of the UK found that not only did biotech crops enhance the way farmers in 18 countries produce food, feed and fiber, but they have also reduced the environmental "footprint" associated with agriculture. Biotech crops contributed to significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices resulting from decreased fuel use, about 1.8 billion liters in the past nine years, and additional soil carbon sequestration because of reduced plowing associated with biotech crops. In 2004, this reduction was equivalent to eliminating more than 10 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or removing five million cars - one-fifth of the cars registered in the UK, for example - from the road for one year. Biotech crops have reduced the volume of pesticide spraying globally by 6 percent since 1996, equivalent to a decrease of 172.5 million kg.

Today, many countries are increasingly aware of both real and potential benefits. We're seeing a growing understanding around the world that agricultural biotechnology is too important a tool to ignore.

Is there a country in the world where GMOs have solved the hunger issue?

No country is without hunger. Agricultural biotechnology is one of many tools that can increase farmers' productivity and reduce real costs, helping more people afford more food and a better diet. Better seeds in the hands of small holder farmers means they can grow more food themselves, because every farmer around the world knows what to do with a seed. Since about half the hungry people in the world are in farming families, they need to have access to all possible tools, including those based on biotechnology.

Why has a worldwide, independent and definitive study on safety of GMOs on human health never been conducted?

Commercial biotech crops and foods have been thoroughly assessed for food, feed, and environmental safety according to well-established, internationally accepted, scientific standards and guidelines. As a result, scientific and regulatory authorities throughout the world have found them to be wholesome, nutritious, and as safe as conventional crops and foods. The extensive testing of biotech crops for food, feed, and environmental safety far exceeds the testing done historically on conventional crops. The European Commission in 2001 acknowledged that the greater regulatory scrutiny given to biotech crops and foods probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.

Which test do you conduct before you file for a commercial authorization?

I don't have a choice in deciding which tests to conduct. The regulatory authorities tell me what tests I have to do, and that's the right way to go about this.

Biotech crops are among the most extensively tested, well-characterized and regulated food and fiber products ever developed, and they're much more extensively studied than any other plant product. A rigorous and comprehensive set of data is generated on every plant biotechnology product before commercialization. It takes several years of laboratory and field testing to conduct the studies needed to satisfy the requirements of the regulatory agencies. The United Nations Codex Commission in 2003 affirmed the standards of safety assessment employed by regulatory authorities globally, and numerous international scientific bodies have concluded that the health and environmental safety of biotech crops is similar to crops produced through traditional crop breeding methods.

Typical testing of biotech crops includes general food safety, protein safety, allergy assessment, substantial equivalence, and environmental safety. The International Life Sciences Institute maintains a database of more than 1,200 publications and reports based on these tests.

What are the probabilities that a product could provoke unforeseen effects?

What the science tells us, what the regulatory reviews tell us, and what 10 years of experience tells us is that these products can be used safely to realize the benefits they offer. Every product, whether it's biotechnology-based or more conventional technology, needs to be used safely and wisely. And because the extensive safety testing and demonstrated benefits of biotech crops, we know that in many cases they are preferable to the traditional practices they are designed to replace - consider how they've reduced the use of millions of kilograms of insecticides, for example.

These 10 years have been marked by RR soybean. What will be the leading product in the next decade?

Over the next 10 years, I expect the focus will be largely on the customer down stream from the farmer - food processors and consumers. The benefits will be aimed at improving food production and addressing specific health issues.

Right now, for example, we're working to use our knowledge of oilseeds like soybeans to improve the nutrition, flavor, texture and other characteristics of foods. In the case of developing healthier oils, we're using plant breeding technologies to help improve processing, nutrition and other consumer benefits.

Jean Michel Duhamel, leader of Monsanto France, has said that in Europe and Africa you are developing varieties soybean and corn resistant to drought. Is the war to drought your new mission?

The question of providing enough food for the world's people to eat is directly tied to the question of water resources, because 70 percent of the fresh water consumed each year is consumed by agriculture. Monsanto is part of a global effort to address drought issues and how plants handle environmental stress. Over time, plants have developed internal systems that tell them to shut down when there's not enough water. This is important protection for plants, but the system often activates well before it's absolutely necessary. We're close to understanding how to buy farmers a little more time before their plants shut down for lack of water. In both the developed and developing world, crops lost to drought and stress total in the billions of dollars each year. In the developing world, the consequences are dire for subsistence farmers and their families.

Transgenic oil seed rape has been one of the first biotech products. Will bio fuels of the near future be transgenic?

You first need to understand the crop. Once you have a clear picture of the science of a particular crop, using genomics, genetic markers, breeding, traditional development and other programs, you have an array of tools you can use to pursue not only more cost-effective biofuels like ethanol for automobiles but also healthy oils for healthy human hearts. Understanding the science of the crop means you can take your research in multiple directions, using both new innovative techniques as well as conventional techniques. The short version of that is that we would expect improvements in biofuels to be both from conventional programs and biotechnology.

Europe has opened its borders to GM food and feed products and is about to start cultivation. After some years of moratorium is Europe still an important market for the agro chemical multinationals?

Europe is always an important market for agriculture. But it is the Europeans themselves, and not multinational companies, who have to decide what they want their agriculture to be, and what kind of benefits they want to realize from it. That is not our decision to make.