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The Monsanto Problem

Bayer bought Monsanto but the history is the same.

The start up Pairwise seeks to make nutritious foods more palatable and popular fruits and vegetables more nutritious. They will be using CRISPR gene editing technology. While it does not entail introduction of genes from other organism, it is still a process of modifying genes. The consumer reaction is not yet known but resistance to GMO foods has been fierce. This new approach will redefine the GMO debate. It will interesting to see how.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats signifies techniques using enzymes to target unwanted molecules in DNA. These unwanted parts of the genetic code can be cut out or even replaced. For Pairwise this means get rid of bitterness or toxicity in fruit or perhaps adding nutritional benefits.

A video from MIT describing the process can be found here.

However CRISPR has theoretical applications above and beyond just plants. There is much excitement and immediate progress in treating diseases and genetic disorders, but much of the controversy about CRISPR has been about theoretical uses and the ethical ramifications therein. One one hand you have potential cures for diseases like sickle cell anemia. On the other you have designer babies and Vladimir Putin musing about creating a super-soldier.

Resistance will not be to a stone-less cherry but the processes used to arrive at it. There is a small but very vocal opposition to any science or change in food. In fact, humans have always changed food whether through agricultural methods, selection hybridization and cross-breeding, introduction of plants into new eco-systems and on and on. I have had long and heated discussions with people who were anti-pasteurization because it wasn’t ‘natural’, no matter that it made food safer. But the novelty of the CRISPR approach will surely spur reaction.

The resistance to GMOs goes beyond mere Luddites though. There is discomfort for many people about introducing of cells alien to an organism in order to get a desired result. While there is little evidence of current GMOs being unsafe – discussion of their safety here, here and here – the sheer strangeness and newness of the techniques make people concerned about the unknown health consequences and the expansion and growth of the practice.

The case of Golden Rice is illustrative of some of the conflicts over GMOS. Golden Rice is rice modified to increase vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency the leading cause of childhood blindness affecting up to half a million children a year in the developing world. By introducing to trans-genes to rice, scientists increased to production of beta-carotene (vitamin A) in the rice. It is as nutritious as current rice crops and about as hearty. It will not cross-pollinate with other rice crops. The genes added are found in other fruits and vegetables. The inventors and the company that commercialized it agreed they would not profit from it. Yet there is significant resistance to its introduction, most notably from Greenpeace. An excellent and balanced summary available of the debate here.

Greenpeace and others question Golden Rice’s efficacy as a crop, its true nutritional value and the economic impact. But what under-girds their objections, in fact the theme that runs through the whole of the GMO debate is a lack of trust in the actors involved. Dr, Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, call the crop a trojan horse to make GMOs acceptable to the public. Michael Pollan, a food writer who calls himself skeptical rather than anti-GMO, believes Golden Rice is not much more than a public relations gambit for biotech. A field of the rice in the Philippines was destroyed by local farmers. Proponents of Golden Rice say this is the reason the crop has really never taken hold. (Though there appear to be some cultural issues with the color.) To a sizable number of people, the motives of anyone promoting genetically modified are highly suspect.

And the reason for this is Monsanto.

Monsanto is not the only biotech company, nor the only company engaged in creating genetically modified crops. However a combination of history, aggressive legal activity, PR campaigns and political levering has created a reputation as a bad corporate citizen. In its history, Monsanto has produced PCBs, dioxin, DDT and Agent Orange. It is responsible for more than 50 EPA superfund sites. Generally speaking, chemical companies as a whole in the 20th century were in a mode of ‘innovate now, ask questions later’ and, to be fair, their research also created LEDs and breakthrough drugs like L dopa for Parkinson’s patients and Celebrex for treating arthritis.

Beginning in the 1980s the company began to focus its business on crops and biotech. Through acquisitions, it became the largest seed company in the world. The company was the first to modify a plant cell in 1983, a decade after it introduced the revolutionary herbicide glyphosate. Glysophate – marketed as Round Up – became the most widely used pesticide in the world. Monsanto then developed seed varieties that were ‘Round Up Ready,’ resistant to the herbicide. Fields of corn, soybeans and others could be treated after emerging with a single chemical. The company was extremely litigious intimidating and threatening individual farmers with ‘a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland.‘ regarding the use its intellectual property, the GMO seeds. As part of the sales agreement, a farmer can only use Round up Ready seeds once; as opposed to the way farmers have gathered and re-planted seeds for millennia.

The Wikipedia article on Monsanto legal cases is lengthy.

After it shed its plastics and sweeteners, the company re-launched as the new Monsanto. an agricultural company. Monsanto spent, and continues to spend, millions on lobbying efforts, not just for regulatory approval but strategic advantages in new markets. The company was aggressive in marketing the product to the developing world, reducing crop varieties and setting up monopolistic supply markets.

The company developed a insect resistant crops – Bt – but found that, in India at least, insects developed resistance. Monsanto then insisted farmers switch to a second generation Bt product which would cost more. There were significant crop and farm failures.

After numerous fights with states and producers over label disclosures, Monsanto sold its bovine growth hormone rBST in 2008.

Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2017 and re-branded it as Bayer Crop Sciences. Bayer has its own troubled history; supplying Zyklon B for gas chambers, for instance. In 2020 Bayer settled the Monsanto glysophate cancer suits to the tune of $10 billion. It also lost a $265 million dollar lawsuit (and regulatory approval) this year, regarding dicamba, another Monsanto herbicide product. They are trying to create a new identity minus the Monsanto name.

So while I am pro-science and am open to what CRISPR may offer food production, any organization trying to develop genetically modified products is going to face strong headwinds. I was curious and so I opened the link to Pairwise. And there is the Bayer logo. This probably dooms Pairwise. Consumers, stakeholders and activist groups will easily detect the relationship to the Monsanto. The decades of arrogance, litigation and social irresponsibility won’t be forgotten.

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