On Thursday of this past week my husband Brian and I had the opportunity to meet Monsanto’s President and CCO, Brett Begemann, as a part of the Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow program. We also toured the research facility in St. Louis, MO and got to take a peek behind the scenes at the greenhouses and test chambers.
If you are a regular follower I’d like to explain now that this post will take on a bit of a different flavor. Usually I post information suitable for children—this might be information you as an adult read, then teach to the children in your life as you see fit.
Secondly, I’m writing this article to inform you. You are free to believe anything you like. If you disagree with me we don’t have to stop being friends.
AND I’m not being paid by anyone or any of that. Soooo, let’s begin!
Thursday afternoon we toured the Monsanto research facility in St. Louis, MO. In less than two hours we were briefed on the most advanced technology in the world. It was amazing. And yes, some of it was overwhelming.
It started with a basic understanding of DNA. We’ve probably all seen pictures of the double helix strand.
All the information in a cell is recorded here in a code of ATs and GCs. Its actually a lot like the binary system of 0s and 1s your computer understands.
In 2003 Scientists completed the Human Genome Project, which was a massive effort to read all these codes, record them, and share the information with the private sector. This created a map of the ATs and GCs in human DNA. The order of these codes determine what proteins are produced. Each protein does a specific job, such as determining your eye color or hair texture. Read this sort-of basic explanation of genetics from Wikipedia if you’d like more in-depth information!
Scientists have similarly mapped the DNA of some plants. They have identified certain proteins and the jobs they do within the plant. At the research facility we watched a presentation that explained the arrangement of proteins as a neighborhood.
Each strand is a street and on each street are houses for the proteins. Not every lot has a protein house, however. Scientists used to think these were empty spaces and filled with “junk” but now they understand how much they don’t understand because the data in these empty lots seems to be very important to turning the proteins on and off. For example, your DNA is the same in every cell. But only the DNA that causes your eyes to be blue is actually “on” in your eyes. Your skin is not blue, neither is your hair. But that information is still in every skin cell, its just “off.”
So scientists know some proteins’ job is to control the yield of a plant. If they can place this protein next to the correct empty house the yield of the plant increases!
The thing that struck me here was that DNA is different in every plant, just like it is in every person. We all have a different combination of proteins that make us the different people we are. At some point the DNA randomly goes together and you create an albino person. At some point the DNA randomly goes together and my dark-haired husband and I have a red-haired son. At some point the DNA can form a plant that yields like crazy. But you really just have to get lucky.
Modifying the plant on purpose allows you to put proteins where you want them instead of waiting and hoping they will arrange themselves on accident.
The odds of nature creating a seed with the exact combination you want are infinitesimal. Just my opinion, but genetic modification doesn’t seem so scary when I realized it could have happened. Not would have, but could have. But I view this as learning from God’s design and using it to be better stewards of the land, better stewards of our money, and better human beings to the millions of starving people in this world. But more on that later…
So some of our corn, soybeans, beets, etc., are modified for better yield, for stronger stalks that don’t fall down in a storm, for drought tolerance, and some are modified for herbicide tolerance. That’s Round-Up.
So here again our guide helped me understand what was really going on in a Round Up ready soybean.
The goal is to kill all plants in a field expect soybeans (or whatever you planted). How do you kill a plant? Well, Brett and I did an experiment on that back in our Plant Thematic Unit. Plants need air, water, nutrients, and sunlight. And while you can’t really control those in a field, sunlight is actually used for the process of photosynthesis which involves, you guessed it, proteins. The chemicals in Round Up are so specifically designed that they can target the exact protein needed for photosynthesis. (Actually its the messenger. It kills the messenger. I find this funny. But irrelevant. Right.) The Round Up ready plant genes are relocated to new housing to protect their photosynthesis process. Now farmers can plant more food in less space because instead of needing to drive equipment into the field to till the weeds under, they can spray Round Up. Plus sensitive plants like corn produce lots more without the competition weeds provided. And unless you have photosynthesizing genes in your DNA, Round Up isn’t a human problem.*
Furthermore, it is this amazing information about proteins that is being used to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, cancer, Asperger’s, so much more. I find it interesting that we cheer these projects, yet decry GMOs.
Maybe it is because the effects of cancer are felt here, in our own backyard. Hunger isn’t an issue we deal with in the US. At least, it isn’t today. Currently our own hunger needs stem more from a lack of money than a lack of food. It just isn’t true everywhere you go.
But maybe we’ll be singing a different tune in another 30-40 years, because today’s population of 7 billion is expected to reach 9 billion in that short of a time frame. In the next few decades farmers will need to produce more food than ever before. They will do this with less land than we farm now and probably less water. They will do this or we will be hungry.
**I welcome all comments, but please be courteous to all. I will remove any rude or hurtful replies. Also, this is a blog for children, so please keep it clean.
*I will be posting more about our meeting soon, but please understand there is SO MUCH to say about GMOs and Monsanto I could not possibly cover it all, especially in one post. 🙂
as a scientist that commercialized the first method for synthesizing DNA (or the ability to write cellular software) more than a quarter century ago and now founding a company to finally develop a next generation DNA synthesis technology… I applaud your keen insight and thoughtful comments. As my french father-in-law would say… Bon Courage!
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I really liked this. It was very interesting to read. I do think that the GMO’s are not the way to go though. I have studied Ariculture and strictly from an agriculturist’s point of view GMO’s are one of the coolest things. Because you could make them grow anywhere, even with virtually no water! That’s really cool. The bad part about it is the health part. One thing stated in this article is about the Soybeans that can be sprayed with poison to get rid of all plants except the soybeans. If you really think about it that right there shows that the Soybeans have something inside them that repell the pesticide. If whatever is inside them (that which is genetically changed or modified) is stronger than the pesticide itself, what are we allowing to be put in our bodies?? We can’t just wash it off either because it is genetically inside and part of the plant. That means when we eat it we are ingesting poisons and pesticides. So from a medical view GMO’s are a very scary thing because it affects people’s health more than what is being said. Why do you think that Europe (most of it not all) absolutely refuses to let GMO’s be grown or sold in stores? The studies have not been extensive enough for us to be eating these things and saying that they are perfectly fine for the body. Eating foods as naturally as possible is probably the best for our bodies any way.
Great Job! Well written.
I hope this doesn’t offend anyone but I feel I need to say my peace.
The tactics Monsanto uses are not the tactics of altruistic science but merciless corporate greed. If they were interested in ending world hunger (which is ironically created by corporate greed) Monsanto wouldn’t be suing anyone and everyone. They would be open sourcing their patents. Monsanto’s work has been implicated in a great many deaths. And is quiet possibly one of the reasons for the massive honey bee die offs.
Global human populations have peeked and started to decline in a great many areas. Not with standing that, humans are capable of being much more productive than destructive (think of all the people you feed each year!)
I personally am offended when anyone asserts that God errs and that mankind can fix it. That a greedy global corporation can some how fix the neglect or incompetence of God.
Personally I believe there is enough and then some for every person who could be born to this world. That the only reason people starve and go without is because of human greed. Monsanto to me typifies that greed like few others.