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Another Ag Hero: Marc Van Montagu

This Business of Farming

Biotech seed's founding father rails against 'frankenfood' fears

Published on: April 19, 2010
OSTEND, BELGIUM – You might be shocked to learn that some of the greatest minds in crop biotechnology are toiling away in laboratories in Ghent, Belgium. Yes, here on the continent that turns its nose up at GM crops.

The International Federation of Agricultural Journalists has gathered here on the West Coast of Europe for its 2010 annual Congress. The week started out with the sky falling – literally – as an ash cloud from an Iceland volcano halted all air traffic into Europe. About 40 of our colleagues from around the world had to sit in airports until finally giving up and going home, while still others took ferries, trains and cars to make it here to Belgium's beautiful coastline.

Biotech in Europe? Yes! On our first day we stopped by the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO), a Flemish Scientific Institute near Ghent, considered Europe's 'cradle of biotechnology.' We were treated to a visit from Professor Marc Van Montagu, the architect and pioneer of plant molecular genetics and transgenic crops (pictured below). Without this man's genius we likely wouldn't be planting, and profiting, from millions and millions of acres of Bt corn and other genetically modified seed today on farms around the world.

Montagu and a colleague figured out how to transfer genes to create transgenic plants back in the late 70s, long before anyone had thought of the catchy slogan "Roundup Ready." The first actual biotech plant was not grown until 1983, leading to Bt corn and glyphosate-resistant crops.

I could not find any mention of Professor Montagu on Monsanto's website. It does note that a Monsanto scientist named John Franz discovered glyphosate in 1970, helping farmers take a dramatic step in weed control. And it does say that in 1983, "Monsanto scientists succeeded for the first time in history to modify a plant cell through biotechnology."

When Montagu went to his supervisors at Ghent University to talk about a patent, they said he needed to establish a commercial company. His first company was called Plant Genetic Systems. Montagu, who also did research at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, helped develop other successful commercial life science spin-offs, including CropDesign, founded in 1998.

Why aren't those companies household names to farmers? Plant Genetic Systems eventually became part of Bayer Cropscience. And CropDesign, a leader in genetic trait discoveries for corn and rice, was purchased by BASF just a week before BASF and Monsanto announced a joint project in 2007 to develop higher yielding, drought-tolerant transgenic crops over the next decade. Those should be available in the next few years.

So you see, in many ways, Professor Montagu's brilliance continues to show itself in American crop fields. And will for quite some time.

Europe's bad luck Still, one wonders why the biotech crop revolution did not take place in Europe, the home of biotechnology. Greenpeace and other environmental groups began beating the anti-tech drum just as Europe faced some of its worst food calamities. When the continent's Mad Cow and Hoof and Mouth epidemics hit over a decade ago, European consumers came unglued.

To make matters worse, some Government leaders misled consumers about actual safety fears, touching off a generation of cynical shoppers who more often believed Greenpeace's 'frankenfood' myths rather than their own scientists, says Montagu.

Today even Greenpeace has made cautious statements to distance itself from the fear tactics it once used.  But the ghost of frankenfood lingers. Montagu predicts that Europe will slowly accept GM grain, but even now the continent maintains its 'zero tolerance' policy for growing GM crops. That is making the continent's farmers less and less relevant in the race to improve yields and feed the world.

"Zero tolerance is the biggest absurdity you can imagine," he says. "Zero does not exist in science. So European companies shy away, and American companies, for example, just do business with the rest of the world."

An end in sight? GM must get the green light as a mainstay tool for all farmers, Montagu insists. "There is not the slightest danger for health or environment with all the GM plants out there now," he says. "We need them badly.

"It's dangerous to ignore using these technologies that we have, in light of the increase in population we will see in the next 30 years. Developing countries need this technology. We can rapidly bring them to another level in their own food production."

But how, professor?

"All scientists who know what the situation is should not stay in their labs but go talk to society," he says. "Most leading political parties are aware but know that most (European) voters are against it. It's up to us to give examples and work with the media.

"Listen to what science says and don't be guided by ideology."

Below, Professor Montagu tells a group of journalists that it will take 10 to 15 years before Europe accepts GM technology. He also talks about the difficulties even large multi-national companies have in getting new traits approved.