Just for a moment, put aside all that you think you know about Monsanto and GMOs.
Currently, Monsanto’s focus is on agriculture. They deliver agricultural products that support farmers all around the world. Through my role as a Field Mom Alumni for Illinois Farm Families, I was invited to visit Monsanto at the end of April.
I’ve been learning a lot about modern agriculture and was very excited to be able to tour Monsanto’s Biotechnology Research Center. I was among a group of about twenty women from the Chicago area, and we all had a lot of questions. Our group of women was very diverse and we had a variety of opinions about the topics of the day: GMOs, honeybees, pesticides, and more. The one thing that we all have in common is the desire to feed our families healthy, wholesome foods.
Monsanto’s primary objective is to support farmers around the world in a variety of ways. In order to produce seeds for agriculture, Monsanto uses biotechnology and traditional plant cross-breeding techniques. Not only does Monsanto provide corn and soybean seed to farmers, Monsanto has a large vegetable seed division. They sell their seeds to organic farmers as well as conventional farmers.
Insects are one of the biggest challenges farmers face. They need to protect the potential of crops from pests that will destroy them. If you look at the numbers, they are staggering. There are up to 4 million insects per acre (approximately the size of a football field). That’s a lot of insects!
One of the ways farmers can combat insect pests is by using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and bioengineering. This bacterium is a natural pesticide that has been used by organic farmers safely for years. It is also the key ingredient to certain genetically modified organisms (GMOS) designed to resist insect pests.
How do GMOs work? Let’s take a look at Bt corn seed. The desired trait from Bt, a protective protein code, is placed into the DNA of corn. The corn then produces this protein as it grows and uses it as a natural pesticide. Insects can’t tolerate this protein and die soon after they eat the roots or leaves of the corn. Why is this safe for us to eat? Insects have an alkaline system, and we have an acidic digestive system. If we were to ingest any of the Bt proteins, our stomachs would break down the protein safely in a matter of hours. Other GM crops may be modified using other desired traits, such as the disease resistance in the Rainbow Papaya. (More about this papaya below.)
In order to prevent insects who become resistant to the Bt protein from mating with each other, farmers are required to plant 5-10% non-GMO corn in a field along with GMO corn. It’s all about “insect sex,” as one farmer in our group said! The majority of insects that live in the field will be eating the non-GMO corn, and if there happen to be some insects that are resistant to the Bt corn, they will mate with the non-resistant insects and their offspring will also be non-resistant. This mix of non-GMO seed and GMO seed is called “Refuge in the Bag.”
Monsanto is not the only company that develops GMOs. Other seed companies, such as DuPont, Bayer, and Syngenta all sell genetically modified seed. Researchers at several universities are also involved in genetic modification of seeds for many reasons. For example, the papaya ringspot virus almost decimated the papaya on Hawaii, until researchers from Cornell University and the University of Hawaii developed the genetically modified Rainbow Papaya.
The term “genetically modified organism” seems scary, doesn’t it? This label came about from other organizations, not Monsanto, but the phrase has stuck. Therefore, Monsanto uses the terms “biotechnology” and “GMO” interchangeably. They want to become more transparent and gain a greater level of trust among us as consumers.
There are only eight crops commercially available from GMO seeds in the U.S. Just a few days ago, I watched a video on Facebook that implied that there were GM strawberries. No GM strawberries exist! These are the only GM crops: Rainbow Papaya, corn (field corn and sweet corn), canola, soybean, alfalfa, cotton, sugar beets, and summer squash.
Why should we trust Monsanto about the safety of GMOs? Monsanto does its own research on the safety of its GM products. There is also a large database from third party researchers, including research in European countries, which proves that GM foods are safe.
During my visit to Monsanto, I felt that our tour guides took our questions seriously and answered them openly. The people who work there were genuinely delighted to show us around and explain the technology and lab research to us. I learned more about Monsanto and agriculture than I can share in just one blog post! Look for another post during the next month.
Monsanto has an excellent website, where they also answer questions from consumers like us: Discover Monsanto. Did anything about my tour surprise you?
Travel expenses were subsidized by Illinois Corn Growers. Travel expenses within Missouri and lunch was provided by Monsanto. All opinions are my own. In our conversation about agriculture, organic and GMO foods, please be respectful.