“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
— John Cage
Well said, John Cage. John Milton Cage Jr, composer, music theorist, writer, and artist, was someone who believed in new ideas. He revolutionised the way the 20th century perceived music. That’s great you may say, but why does Monsanto care and perhaps more specifically, why should you care? We are both talking about innovation.
On Feb. 6, the Food Innovation Summit in Brussels brought together policy makers, industry and food experts to debate the issues facing European agriculture and food today and how to use innovation to help solve them. As we learned in Davos a couple of weeks ago (you can read our blog post on Davos here), food security and climate change are two of the planet’s most pressing concerns, especially in light of the exponential population growth. Europe’s current obsession with organic agriculture and “agroecologie” is not helping, and if anything, puts even more pressure on the rest of the world to produce the foods that Europe won’t grow but still needs to import. We will not be able to feed the world if technology and innovation in the agriculture sector isn’t allowed to advance.
European Commissioners Hogan and Andriukaitis both spoke at length about the need for innovation in the agriculture sector as a way to produce enough, high quality food to feed Europe, and help feed the rest of the world too. Our favourite snippet from Commissioner Hogan’s speech was “We will have to do more with less: less water, less inputs, less energy.” This is a sentiment that we also share at Monsanto. In many areas innovation is seen as progress, but in the Agri/food sector, it can be viewed with a certain remnant of unease and at times, suspicion. That said, EU Health and Agri ministers are in agreement that innovation is no longer about wants, it’s a need.
No, we are not going to bore you again by talking about GMOs now. (We’ve already blogged about that a lot, although the message that it’s not our focus in Europe is sadly not sinking in very fast). Instead, let’s take the example of Marker Assisted Selection (MAS). A morphological or biochemical marker, or one based on DNA/RNA variation, is used to indirectly select the genetic determinant of a trait of interest such as productivity, disease resistance, stress tolerance, or quality. Still with us? In simpler terms, it enables plant breeders and therefore, farmers, to select desirable traits with which to strengthen other plants of the same variety. Today, molecular markers are available for a wide range of traits and crop species such as barley, bean, peppers, rice, soybean, wheat and tomatoes. (Our colleagues in the U.S. have published a really accessible blog post if you want to learn more about the MAS process.) Even Greenpeace endorses the Marker Assisted Selection process!
So what are the advantages of MAS seeds? Seeds created using MAS technology can be more resistant to environmental damage. In a world where climate is volatile and crop yields are increasingly being adversely affected, MAS seeds offer a real solution to help protect crop yields. The nutrient value of crops can also be increased by utilizing MAS. For example, as the Greenpeace publication states, “Given the genetic variation in concentrations of zinc, iron, and vitamins among plant varieties, conventional and marker-assisted breeding have great potential to increase the micronutrient contents of staple crops”
At Monsanto, we are really proud of the time, capital and energy we invest in finding new and innovative ways to help farmers access sustainable, affordable and innovative seeds to use. We will continue to do so, in an effort to help feed Europe and the world.