Biotech inventors turn to more exotic manipulation

Americans may not know it, but most eat genetically modified food daily. And two Midwestern scientists—one an unassuming gardener, the other a no-nonsense executive—are largely responsible.

Eighty percent of the soy crop in the United States is genetically engineered with a gene from a hardy bacterium that makes soy resistant to a popular weed killer. Fully one-third of US corn contains a gene from another bacterium that kills bugs.

Robb Fraley and Rob Horsch led the Monsanto Co.
genetic engineers who created those crops. And if they have their way, even recalcitrant Europe will soon be eating modified products, too.

Both men are surprised by the widespread use of their creations and equally impressed by the vehement opposition to biotech crops that has sprouted. But they remain unapologetic. They defend their altered offspring as safe and say more exotic crop modifications are on their way.

“This isn’t theoretical,” Fraley offered at the biotechnology industry’s annual convention in the nation’s capital last week. “We will reach the marketplace with many of these products by the end of the decade.”

Fraley and Horsch have spent nearly all their professional lives, a combined 45 years, at Monsanto creating the very products now at the centre of a bitter trans-Atlantic trade war.

Their names are on hundreds of scientific papers and patents that help Monsanto enjoy its Microsoft-like lock on the commercial market for genetically modified seeds: 90% of the 56-million hectares under biotech cultivation worldwide were sowed with Monsanto’s corn and soy. And 70% of processed US food contains at least some genetically modified ingredients, the company says.

That biotech crops were only approved for commercialisation in 1997 gives the two men confidence—and their foes pause—that genetically modified food is here to stay.

“We didn’t expect that they would move as fast as they did,” said anti-biotech author Jeremy Rifkin, one of the first prominent Monsanto critics. Rifkin and others, including many European consumers, loathe genetically modified foods and see Monsanto as trying to foist dangerous technology on an unsuspecting public.

Fraley and Horsch essentially launched Monsanto’s biotechnology programme in the early 1980s when the St Louis-based company was still content as a chemical maker and many, even inside the company, saw the research field as folly.

“There were six people working on biotechnology at Monsanto,” Fraley said, when he joined Monsanto in 1980 after two years of postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco.

Fraley, now Monsanto’s chief technology officer, says company scientists are currently working on putting a heart-disease fighting protein, now found only in fish, into vegetable oils.

He talks of a day when biotechnology makes french fries less fattening and vegetables even healthier.

Fraley retains the look of a tall and strapping Illinois farm boy. He still jokes that his mother said he helped create Roundup Ready soy because he hated hand-weeding the family’s 40-hectare soy farm.

But it’s obvious Fraley left the farm a long time ago—he was impeccably dressed as he made his way to Capitol Hill in the back of a rented Town Car to host a reception for lawmakers and regulators.

The less dapper, more earthy Horsch joined in 1981, after graduating from the University of California, Riverside.

“Biotechnology wasn’t a common word and the community was tiny,” Horsch recalled.

Fraley was at UCSF while Herb Boyer and others were reporting the first gene-splicing successes in bacteria.

While Boyer and most others in the tiny field at the time viewed biotechnology as a novel way to make human medicines, Fraley was curious about its applications to agriculture.

Horsch said his motivation for getting into the field was simpler. He wanted to be a biologist, saw biotechnology as an emerging field, and “I’m squeamish about blood,” Horsch said.

So it was off to the greenhouse, Horsch recalled in an interview at the biotechnology conference immediately after a brunch where genetically engineered foods and drinks such as smoothies made with papayas (modified with a bacterium gene that kills bugs) were proudly served.

Both men were in their 30s when they were finally permitted to plant their engineered crops in outdoor experiments for the first time in 1987. At the time, they had full heads of hair and unrestrained optimism about leading an agricultural revolution.

Now, both are balding, and still see themselves at the vanguard of dramatic changes in the way the world farms.

Horsch manages a Monsanto program designed to help farmers in developing nations improve their farming methods. He says his mission is twofold: “create goodwill and help open future markets.”

But while receiving plaudits as technological innovators—President Bill Clinton awarded each with the National Medal of Technology in 1999—the duo and their Monsanto colleagues are reviled by many.

Instead of improving agriculture, the critics say Monsanto’s creations are imperiling human health and the environment because no studies of the long-term consequences of their creations have been done.

Many consumers, especially in Europe, see their creations as “Frankenfoods,” an assertion that offends both deeply.

They both say they were driven to improve agriculture for good and for profit, which don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In fact, they can’t believe that their heady work of the 1980s has been so assailed today.

“I didn’t anticipate the backlash,” Horsch said. “I didn’t see it coming.” - Sapa-AP

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