YES — ROBERT B. HORSCH, vice president of international development partnerships at Monsanto Company, received the 1998 National Medal of Technology for his pioneering experiments in the genetic modification of plant cells. He talks about the promise of GM crops.
How did you become interested in the genetic modification of plants?
I started in this field with a strong interest in plants but with what you might call an academic interest in agriculture. I had this vague, naive notion that if we could genetically improve plants with the new tools of molecular biology, we would find a way to make biotechnology relevant to agriculture.
That has now happened. Biotechnology is a great tool that will allow us to produce more food on less land and with less depletion or damage to water resources and biodiversity. I am convinced that biotechnology is not just relevant but imperative for helping us meet the rapidly growing demand for food and other agricultural products. The combination of more people and rising incomes will increase the demand for food by at least 50 percent in the next 25 years.
But critics of genetically modified foods point out that companies are not going to start giving products away. Can a corporation like Monsanto make biotechnology affordable for farmers in the developing world?
Cultivating commercial markets and applying technology to help the developing world are not mutually exclusive at all. One approach that works very well is to segment the market into different areas. One is the pure commercial market. It makes economic sense, as a for-profit company, for us to invest in products and market developments in places where we can sell our products and where we think we can make a profit. In 2005 more than 90 percent of the 8.5 million farmers who grew biotech crops were small farmers in developing countries. Commercial expansion has been more successful in developing countries than I would have predicted just a few years ago.
Then there's another area, what I call a transitional market, where we have less experience related to biotechnology but that in the long run I think may be more powerful and beneficial for development efforts. We have used this approach with our older, nonbiotech products, such as high-yielding corn hybrids, and I think we can use it in the future with biotech products. Small farmers can see results in a demonstration plot and, if they want, try it themselves on a portion of their farm. If it works for them, they can expand or repeat it the next year. We have programs like this in Mexico, India and parts of Africa. By the third or fourth year, if it's working, the farmers will have made enough money from the experimentation phase to be able to run essentially on their own.
And what about profits for Monsanto?
We sell the seeds and the herbicide at market prices, and we subsidize the learning, the testing and the development of distribution channels so that we don't actually make a profit in the first several years. Only if the project is successful enough to become self-sustaining will we start making a profit. As of 2006, our cooperative development projects in Mexico, India and South Africa have successfully transitioned to self-sustaining markets for Monsanto and for farmers. In sub-Saharan Africa, the products are working well in farmers' hands, but the regulatory capacity and market infrastructure are developing more slowly and still need cooperative help.
Let's turn to the environmental effects of GM crops. What do you consider the most important benefits of the technology?
Lower use of pesticides is the environmental benefit that people relate to immediately, and it's huge for a product like Bt cotton. [Editors' note: Bt crops have been genetically modified to produce a bacterial protein that kills certain insect pests.] According to a recent report, 380 million pounds of pesticides were not used in the U.S. between 1996 and 2004 as a result of insect-protected crops, and many, many more won't be used in the future as biotech expands in acreage and in traits.