Monsanto Co. (MON:US) opponents who want to block genetically modified foods are guilty of “elitism” that’s fanned by social media and fail to consider the needs of the rest of the world, Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant said.
The global population is growing and food consumption will rise even faster as people enter the middle class and eat more protein, the head of the world’s largest seed maker said in an interview. Those who can pay more for organic food want to block others from choosing more affordable options, Grant said.
“There is this strange kind of reverse elitism: If I’m going to do this, then everything else shouldn’t exist,” Grant said at Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters yesterday. “There is space in the supermarket shelf for all of us.”
Opponents question studies from the National Research Council and others that found engineered foods are no more risky than crops developed through conventional techniques. An outpouring of concerns was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its decision last week to conduct an environmental impact statement on herbicide-tolerant crops, rather than a briefer study.
More than 400,000 people signed a petition to the USDA opposing approval of Dow Chemical Co. (DOW:US)’s 2,4-D tolerant corn and soybeans, and 31,000 form letters were submitted opposing dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton developed by Monsanto and BASF SE (BAS), the world’s largest chemical maker.
The advent of social media helps explain why many people in the U.S. have come to oppose genetically engineered crops in recent years, Grant said.
“I’d feel a whole lot better if it was marinated a little on where is that extra chicken going to come from or who is going to grow the new bushel,” Grant, who is also Monsanto’s chairman, said in the interview.
Crops engineered to withstand herbicide, tolerate disease and kill insects will play an important role in helping farmers meet rising food demand on limited arable land, Grant said.
Plant breeding does much more to increase crop yields than genetic modification, said Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Engineering crops to tolerate herbicides makes farmers jobs easier, while increasing the public’s exposure to chemicals such as dicamba and 2,4-D that have been linked to reproductive problems, he said.
“Most of the people that become motivated to engage the political issues have become convinced that going down the road of genetically engineered foods is not the way to meet the needs of a food insecure population,” Benbrook, who submitted his own studies opposing approval of the Dow and Monsanto crops, said in a telephone interview today.
Monsanto spends about half of its $1.5 billion research and development budget on biotechnology and the other half on breeding.
Some people lose sight of the bigger global picture, the CEO said.
“This place is getting busier and more crowded,” Grant said. “As long as you’ve got money in your back pocket and you drive your station wagon to the supermarket on weekends, then it’s out of sight out of mind, so far.”
The best way to help alleviate hunger is for the world to reduce food waste, eat less meat, and restore soil fertility, Benbrook said. Still, genetic engineering is beginning to produce crops that benefit consumers, such as Monsanto’s Vistive soybeans that produce healthier oils, he said.
Opponents on social media are capitalizing on an increased public interest in how their food is produced, Grant said.
“And the sad piece of this is, it ends up either or,” Grant said. “So you get conventional agriculture or broad scale or however you define it, and organic. I think we’re going to look back on this period and say, ‘How on earth did that ever become the fight that it became.’”
Grant said his dicamba-tolerant crops should still be approved around mid-decade, roughly on schedule with the company’s own timeline, because scientists at the USDA will review the applications objectively. The technology will be added to Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant crops to help farmers control weeds that are no longer killed by Roundup herbicide.
“In the U.S., we have a system that works,” Grant said.
He praised Mark Lynas, a 1990s British campaigner against genetically modified foods who publicly apologized in a January speech for starting what Lynas now calls an “anti-science movement.”
“That was a gutsy thing to do, and it’s a healthy conversation,” Grant said.
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