The beginning of biotech
2013 World Food Prize Laureate and Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer Dr. Robert Fraley still remembers the day in 1983 when the world was first introduced to biotech crops.
I remember Rob Horsch running down the hallway, saying “It worked! It worked!”
So it was just night and day. One plate was green and full of plant cells, and the other one was brown and didn’t work, and that was it.
And then, once that happened, we knew we had a system that would work, and we started applying it to cotton, and corn and soybean.
That sprint came on the heels of the first successful insertion of a gene into a plant cell, which then grew into a new, living plant.
Until its early exploration of plant science in the late 1970s, Monsanto Company dealt mainly in agricultural chemicals. While he says the team knew instantly that their find was significant, Fraley says they never imagined that 30 years later, their technology would be grown on 25% of the world’s arable acres in 30 countries. He says biotechnology even moved the Corn Belt itself, starting with the introduction of RoundUp Ready soybeans in 1996.
RoundUp Ready soybeans was a pretty magical experience. We launched in ’96, and there’s a couple things I remember.
You could drive along the interstates, and you could pick out the fields that were RoundUp Ready, because they were completely clean, and there wasn’t a weed.
You could go by the conventional technology at the time, and you’d see a couple of milkweeds here, and a few other weeds, and the RoundUp fields were clean.
And then it got to be more important, because a lot of people don’t appreciate that there were multiple benefits of the RoundUp Ready technology. One was, it controlled the weeds. But probably the most important thing that RoundUp Ready technology did was give the growers the confidence that the weeds could be controlled, and that enabled them to move to conservation tillage, and reduced tillage.
That really helps conserve moisture and topsoil, and that’s really a key reason we could start to see soybeans be planted farther north and west, in areas that had traditionally been too dry, because this technology conserved moisture, and had a big role to play in the migration of the Corn Belt north and west.
Just as unexpected as its widespread adoption was the intense criticism of biotechnology. Despite that, Fraley says there’s been no known health problems from genetically modified crops in the 20 years in which they’ve become commonplace. Of particular importance in his opinion is that the technology is scale-neutral; he says most users of biotech seed are smallholder farmers outside the United States. Its neutrality of scale, he says, contributes heavily to its continued success around the world.