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Food Politics

Up Close and Personal with the Genetic Modifiers

My two-day field trip with Germany’s BASF Plant Science.
BASF Plant Science

Day 1: Press conference and visit to CropDesign, Ghent, Belgium

About three quarters of the way through the press conference touting the $1.5-billion collaboration on high-yield, drought-tolerant genetically modified crops initiated last year by Monsanto and BASF Plant Science, a Dutch woman on the far side of the room raised her hand and asked in a tremulous voice, “Forgive me if this is off-topic, but what about the taste?”

The four guys up on the dais looked uniformly stumped. Finally, Steve Padgette, Monsanto’s stylish young president of biotechnology (and co-inventor of its Roundup Ready seeds), spoke. “The taste of crops that go into human consumption directly is very, very important,” he said. “But the number-two yellow corn that we’re talking about here, that’s not for human consumption.”

In fact, nothing had been said about human consumption since the second slide in Padgette’s PowerPoint presentation—the one that talked about how, with the population expected to balloon to nine billion by 2050, it was going to take the biotechnological wonders of companies like his to feed the hungry masses. Not that Padgette pretended to be solely about saving the world: His very next slide depicted the global market for various biotech traits, forecasting its total 2025 value at a robust $50 billion. And so it went throughout the next 48 hours, with the possible benefits in store for farmers a seeming afterthought to those guaranteed to accrue to shareholders.

Imagine the Slow Food event held last month in San Francisco and then turn the whole thing on its head: What you’d end up with is something along the lines of the two days I spent in Europe a few weeks back for a behind-the-scenes peek at the biotech operations of Germany’s BASF Plant Science. Maybe it was because most of the journalists in attendance had come from publications like Agrow: World Crop Protection News, Chemical Weekly, Chemical & Engineering News, and Successful Farming, but any experience of cognitive dissonance appeared to belong to me alone. Sample conversational snippet from Daniel Davidson, staff agronomist for the Omaha-based Progressive Farmer, on the 1,000 acres he farms back in Nebraska: “Planted the whole thing with Monsanto’s GM corn. Didn’t even think about it.”

The press conference, which took place in a beautifully re-tooled early 19th–century farmhouse in Ghent, Belgium, provided us 30 or so journalists with an overview of the year-old BASF/Monsanto collaboration on stress-tolerant corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. Afterwards, we trundled onto a bus and made our way across town to CropDesign, a ten-year-old company (acquired by BASF in 2006) that uses “phenotypic screening”—monitoring how properties like shape, size, color, etc., respond to environmental changes—to determine gene function in plants. Johan Cardoen, the company’s CEO, told us that CropDesign’s original goal had been to find a single gene to increase yield. “Today we are on the verge of realizing that business opportunity,” he said, with no reference in sight to the farmers that the partnership’s “climate-ready” crops were supposedly designed to rescue.

We stripped off our blazers and sweaters and snapped into plastic lab coats, then followed company manager Marnix Peferoen through a pair of sliding glass doors and into the tropical heat of an enormous greenhouse. Before us, the wispy greens of some 64,000 individual transgenic rice plants spread out to the horizon. (Any gene effects achieved in rice are expected to duplicate themselves in corn and other cereals, explained Peferoen, and BASF believes it’s only a matter of time before its genetically modified rice finds a market—a big one—in Asia.) There was something slightly chilling about the number of them, but the plants themselves, nestled tightly in what resembled plastic deli containers and labeled with tiny barcodes, looked perfectly innocent, like something your kindergartener would perch on the kitchen windowsill. And aside from the souped-up bicycle rigged to tracks set above the rice (the technicians ride it out over the plants to make adjustments), the greenhouse appeared no different from any other.

The plants would be kept in the facility’s paddy-like conditions for two to three months, we were told, being transferred weekly to a conveyor belt that rolls them through the MRI-like “imaging cabinet,” which is programmed to photograph from six angles, yielding precise measurements of such attributes as volume, color, and root width. Like most everything else I would see over the next 36 hours, the cabinet appeared to be in a serious hurry: It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, enabling CropDesign to process some 50,000 digital images a day and test more than 140,000 plants a year.

Once the plants have generated seeds in the “maturation area,” a less-humid, basketball-court-sized expanse (where they also get repeatedly photographed), they are ready for harvesting. Because of the precision required, this is done by actual humans. The day our group walked through, eight twenty-somethings in bright orange BASF T-shirts sat around a table on tall stools mechanically picking off seeds and dropping them into tiny, bar-coded envelopes. From there, the seeds would be dried out and analyzed yet again to determine how likely they were to hold genes that might produce traits like yield boosting and drought resistance. The winners, paired with those that emerged from the work of the Berlin-based Metanomics—whose mind-bogglingly futuristic operation we would see the following day—would move into the pipeline for the collaboration with Monsanto. In retrospect, the operation here at CropDesign would strike me as downright bucolic.

Day 2: Behind the scenes at Berlin’s Metanomics

The morning after we visited CropDesign, our group of journalists caught an early flight to Berlin, where we transferred directly to Metanomics, a “metabolic profiling” operation located in a technology park in a far western section of the city. Founded ten years ago by BASF Plant Science and staff members of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, the company studies gene functions by analyzing the changes that occur when an individual gene in a plant’s genetic code is modified. CEO and managing director Arnold Krotzky, who looked like a mad scientist with his flyaway gray hair, compared what his company does to looking under the hood of a car—as opposed to studying a vehicle’s exterior, à la CropDesign.

As with the operation in Ghent, though, this one appeared to be wasting no time. Richard Tretheway, the boyish Cambridge Ph.D. who co-founded Metanomics and currently serves as its science director, told us the company carries out more than 100,000 experiments a year, and its digital library contains some 1.7 million metabolic profiles of plant genes. On average, he said with pride, it submits one major patent application every five days. (To date, Metanomics has filed more than 150,000 gene-function patents around the world.)

Our cameras tucked safely out of sight, we donned white lab coats and peered into what Krotzky called the “emergency room for plants,” a long, narrow chamber where two rows of tiny GM Arabidopsis plants sat under bright lights in precisely calculated growing conditions. Metanomics had modified each of the plants by individually “switching off,” or knocking out, one of its 35,000 or so genes, or else by adding a new one, and now its scientists were observing how the altered plants functioned under a range of environmental stresses.

We strapped on thick goggles and made our way upstairs, where we traipsed down long, sterile hallways and dipped in and out of labs housing the all-important extractors. These giant contraptions operate sort of like espresso machines, freezing plant samples in liquid nitrogen and then using high pressure and various solvents to extract metabolites, products of thousands of chemical reactions that can be used as “biosensors” to interpret metabolic changes. In one room, a life-sized robot with a giant hinged arm repeatedly picked up and jerkily transferred samples into a centrifuge, separating out yet more metabolites. (The robot got the job, we were told, not just because he works nights—he has a cell phone in case of emergencies—but also because he is far more precise than a human could ever be.)

With software developed in-house, Metanomics’ 70 or so computers are able to measure several hundred metabolites at a time. The results get combined with those from CropDesign’s phenotypic screening, and that information, along with whatever’s been learned from hundreds of field trials, gets integrated into a “bio-informatics platform” known as the “MetaMap.” Touted by BASF as the largest gene-function database in the world, the map—imagine the proofs Russell Crowe was always scribbling in A Brilliant Mind—links millions of metabolome reactions directly to individual genes and gene groups, furthering the scientists’ ability to select the best candidates for traits like drought resistance, increased yield, even high vitamin content.

While the Ghent and Berlin programs are operating 24/7, Monsanto is conducting its own gene-discovery initiative back in St. Louis. (The company has invested $75 million in proprietary software to sort through plant germ plasm.) The “lead genes” recognized by all the programs are identified (along with their functions) in patent applications and then entered into the joint development pipeline. Whatever emerges will benefit from Monsanto’s not inconsiderable marketing might.

But while the hopes are high—some 175 yield and stress field trials on promising gene traits are already underway in the U.S., and the first generation of drought-tolerant GM corn is set for release in 2012—not everything is progressing exactly according to plan. Over the course of the two-day program, conversation returned repeatedly to the irony of this gigantic genetic-modification operation having its home in the heart of Europe. A presentation by Dirk Enze, one of the founders of CropDesign, took as its sole topic “Biotechnology and Europe: Challenges and Opportunities.” Among the challenges, of course, is that most of the people there want nothing to do with the stuff. To date, only one GM crop, Bt corn, has been approved for cultivation by the EU commission. Enze recommended “educating the children” and bringing them into the lab as one way to combat the general fear of GM. In the meantime, said Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science, the collaboration has renounced any plans to develop crops aimed at the European market. Still, he wondered aloud whether the Europeans weren’t making a big mistake in denying GM technology. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said in heavily accented English, “can we afford to miss the boat?”

Of course, if you’re to believe BASF, there’s nothing at all to fear from genetic modification—or genetic “optimization,” as it was repeatedly referred to there. A presentation by Graham Brookes, director of the England-based PG Economics Limited, showed hard evidence of the overwhelmingly positive economic and environmental impacts of the crops. Mind you, this is a man whose company gets a paycheck from such pro-GM trade associations as CropLife International and Green Biotech Europe, and who summed up his view of the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva with the couplet “bloody idiot.”

Whether Brookes’ numbers would hold up to scrutiny or not, it does appear that the tide is turning elsewhere in the world. According to an article by Paul Collier in this month’s Foreign Affairs, GM crops currently are growing on some 300 million acres, or about ten percent of the world’s total crop area. And BASF expects that number to climb steadily. (Among the regions where they anticipate a shift in public opinion is Africa, which may explain why the BASF/Monsanto collaboration has agreed, through an initiative known as WEMA, or Water Efficient Maize for Africa, to provide its drought-tolerant maize to farmers there royalty free.) “The future is in genes,” said Juergen Logemann, BASF Plant Science’s vice president of technology management. “And I hope we can convince you that we’ve got the genes.”

That they do. And given the serious minds—and the very serious money—behind them, they’re likely to claim ownership of hundreds of thousands more of them before they’re through. “My enthusiasm wanes,” said Monsanto’s Padgette at the press conference in Ghent, “only when the genes run out.”

Organizations like the Ottawa-based ETC Group and Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya recently renewed their call on governments around the world to stop issuing patents on living organisms. But when you consider the magnitude of operations like the one I’ve just seen—and when you imagine the kind of legal machinery that’s undoubtedly in line to defend those investments—you can’t help but wonder whether, to borrow an image from Hans Kast, that ship hasn’t already sailed.