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.
Mr. Begemann talked with us for a while about Monsanto’s acquisition of 20/20, the company that make the precision planting equipment you’ve seen us use on the blog.
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. 🙂