While in St. Louis, Missouri for the Food and Fear event, I had the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for quite a long time – visit Monsanto!
As a sponsor of the Food and Fear event, Monsanto invited a group of participants to come to their corporate offices in St. Louis, chat with some of their scientists and engineers, and take a tour of the facility. Despite what I’ve been told repeatedly over the last few years of blogging, I have never been inside such a facility so this was an exciting, unique opportunity for me and it did not disappoint! The facility was very nice, the people were awesome, and it was so cool to see some of the things the company is working on.
While I would love to give you a play-by-play account of the day, for your sake, I’ll stick to a highlight reel.
An Introduction to Plant Breeding
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the biggest highlights on the tour were those focused on plant breeding. What may surprise you is that we talked a lot about traditional breeding methods to create hybrids. In other words, non-GMOs.
So, how do plant breeders know which plants they want to use as the parents for those hybrid crops? Simply put, by taking DNA samples from a number of specimen and choosing the ones with the desired traits. Originally, this process included planting up to 100,000 seeds, waiting for them to grow into plants, and then taking about four leaf samples from each plant. Those samples were then coded so scientists could keep track of which plant they came from (read: logistical nightmare). The DNA of the samples were then checked for desired traits and only the plants with the right ones were kept. The rest of the plants were pulled out of the field and disposed.
More modern techniques actually take the DNA samples right from the seed itself, instead of the leaf samples. While this was originally accomplished by filing the seed, a chipping tool was later created for better speed and efficiency. These chipping tools started as hand-held tools where one seed could be chipped at a time (try doing that 100,000 times…), but now more advanced machines are used that can chip several seeds at a time. Once the desired traits are found, the hybrid creation can begin.
Of course, we also talked about genetically modified plants and the creation process. We were shown corn plants in different stages of the process. Interestingly, genetic engineering is only one step toward creating a new biotech plant. The rest of the process involves some of the traditional plant breeding methods described to find seeds where the DNA was changed in exactly the way necessary.
The coolest part of the tour had really very little to do with agriculture.
Consider that when Monsanto needs a machine or tool to do something, such as chipping seeds, it can’t just run down to Costco and buy the required machine. They have to create the machine. We were able to take a quick pass through the area where Monsanto designs and creates these specific tools and machines. Once a machine is designed by the engineers, it is created using a 3-D printer. I have no idea how these things work, but it was so cool to see the bendable, pliable, little plastic models that these printers were able to create. Once the designers are sure that the 3-D model is exactly what they need to do the job, it is then created using steel and other more durable materials.
All of the models and machines being built and processed while we were in the plant were at least 6-7 years away from being implemented.
Crop Pest Protection
Another part of the tour that I found absolutely fascinating was the one regarding pest protection for crops. Did you know that 95% of all the biomass on the Earth is insects?! Let that sink in for a minute and hopefully you’ll appreciate how important pesticides are for farmers.
When Monsanto seeks out ways to protect plants from these pests, they’re always looking for the most targeted approach. That means they try to find a pesticide that targets only the insect causing the problem, instead of finding a pesticide that kills that bug…and all the others. The Bt protein is the best example of a targeted pest management pesticide. By inserting the gene into certain crops, the plant is protected from certain pests. You can learn more about how this trait works here.
By way of a visual aid, there was a display case at the Monsanto facility. In it were two soybean plants containing the GE Bt trait. There was also a non-GE soybean plant. Monsanto employees then put certain worms into the case, including the looper, which target soybean plants. As you can see from the above photo, the non-GE soybean plant (center) did not fair so well. The GE soybean plants did much better and were thriving.
While on the tour, we also got to see the greenhouses Monsanto has onsite, talk about bee health, and learn more about their new data tools for farmers. We were also treated to some very interesting conversation and a nice lunch.
Overall, it was a super cool experience to see the facility, learn more about the company, and have the opportunity to actually speak with employees. A special thank you to everyone at Monsanto for having us at the facility and showing us around!