Transcript: A Monsanto Exec Takes On the GMO Debate

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ant Specialist Dustin McMahon hand pollinates genetically modified corn plants inside greenhouses housed on the roof of Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, 21 May 2009.
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Below you will find a transcript of Takeaway Host John Hockenberry's September 22, 2014 interview with Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto. Tomorrow The Takeaway will hear a response from activist Vandana Shiva.

John Hockeberry [JH]: The Monsanto Corporation breeds, grows, and sells genetically modified seeds to farmers across the world. They've been doing it for 15 years, and this makes them a leader in the field. But because they also hold patents on a number of those seeds, it also makes them a target in debate over whether seeds can be the property of a corporation. Dr. Robert Fraely is Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of Monsanto. He's familiar with passion against GMOs among some activists. He believes it's all apart of making progress.

Dr. Robert Fraley [RF]: The conversation itself around GMOs in many ways has become a distraction to the real issues and challenges and conversations we should be having around food security. Because as important as the GMO technology has been, it’s only one tool in an arsenal of many tools that farmers will need. How do we double the amount of food between now and 2050 is really where the conversation should be focused.

JH: People like Vandana Shiva and other activists who target Monsanto in their anti-GMO campaigns claim that your technology is killing people, is causing suicides in South Asia, that sort of thing. But by your argument, would you say that such critics are contributing to starvation by halting the production of agriculture in the way that you say Monsanto’s technology can assist farmers?

RF: You know in a broad sense every new technology has its detractors. I always often talk about the examples in other fields. We’ve seen some folks in the area of human health who don’t believe in the science of vaccines, and there is a whole internet rumor mill that is not grounded in science or based in scientific fact and as a result today we have folks who are getting disease that should have been eradicated decades ago.

I was just in California and they are now up to several hundred children being infected with measles and several who have died because somewhere there is a story that says vaccines might cause a problem, which has never been grounded in science. We see those same issues and critics that spread information, misinformation, rumors and sometimes just lies about the technology.

The true story in India today is that the technology has been adopted extensively. It’s given farmers, cotton farmers, higher yields and it’s also dramatically reduced their pesticide use. And this year, India, because of its adoption of the technology, will become the largest cotton producer in the world and Indian farmers are enjoying a level of income and sustainability that they have never seen before.

There is a very beneficial technology in rice called Golden Rice, that’s being developed by IRRI—the International Rice Research Institute. That’s based on science that was developed 20 years ago in Germany and Europe where a single gene can be introduced into rice to create a higher level of Vitamin A. In diets, particularly in Asia and Africa which are poor in Vitamin A, young children develop eye problems and night blindness and there has been a lot of work to show that just a cup a day of vitamin enriched Golden Rice could alleviate this problem. You know that’s an example where activists and critics who destroy field trials are creating a needless barrier to the adoption of a tool that can help farmers grow their crops but also help directly in terms of health benefits to consumers.

JH: So why not have GMO technology identified on labeling?

RF: Yeah, the labeling conversation is really an important one and a timely one and we are absolutely supportive of companies who want to do the GMO free labeling. Here in the U.S., 90 percent of the corn and soybean crop are GMOs, so it is the base crop technology in the U.S. For consumers who want a GMO free product, we certainly encourage the use of the organic label, which is by definition GMO-free. And now there are organizations that are certifying certain food products as GMO-free.

There’s about 15,000 different products in the grocery store shelf today that are GMO-free, so one perspective is consumers already have an enormous amount of choice between whether they want a GMO product or not so a lot of the conversation around labeling is driven by folks who want to create labels that are more punitive or would be of concern to the consumer and those are the ones where we’ve intervened as a company. But fundamentally, in direct answer to your question, we support the right for organizations to label their products as GMO-free. We think that type of voluntary labeling is exactly the type that should be used.

JH: But don’t you contribute to the controversy by spending tens of millions lobbying against transparency and labeling bills in Congress?

RF: Well we’re not against transparency. That is the point I was trying to make. We support the voluntary labeling systems that are already out there. Let’s reel back to maybe the situation you are talking about in California or some of the labeling bills that are being proposed today. Those labeling bills I would characterize as being very poorly written, they will be very costly to implement, everyone who has studied those has talked about their cost of enforcement to being hundreds of thousands of dollars to a family with no benefit above and beyond what is already available with the choices from organic and voluntary labeling.

And so we’ve opposed those as have so many other food companies because they’re expensive, they’re poorly written. And in the end, labeling is a national priority and we would certainly support the FDA looking at a broad-based labeling approach, but to do it state-by-state and interfere with the transportation, with the ability of farmers to produce their crops and market them at a state-by-state level I think would create a nightmare situation. So, you know, we’ve opposed kind of poorly written, you know state-by-state initiatives

JH: But are you saying an FDA GMO-free law would be something you’d support?

RF: Yeah, and in fact the FDA and USDA have already defined a number of the GMO-free type products. Doing that at a national level I think is the right solution versus state-by-state initiatives that are often originated by groups who have a different motive.

JH: Couldn’t you preempt this whole thing though, by labeling what are GMO products, couldn’t you say if this is such a boon for humanity, made with superior GMO-produced agricultural products made for the health and the health of all mankind, something like that.

RF: So the way labeling systems work is we label every bag of seed we sell around the world as containing our biotech traits, so we do label all our seed products. The challenge that you’re addressing is how does the processed foods and how do the food products get labeled.

You know as a seed company, we have a role in that, but that is the ultimate decision of the food companies and the FDA. We’re a member of GMA. We support the efforts that they’re putting in place in terms of transparency and we also support the efforts that they’re putting in place to uh, you know to try to create a more national labeling scheme that will work for all parties.

JH: But nothing would prevent Monsanto from doing that, just like Intel markets Intel inside in computers…you could market GMO Monsanto products in this burrito.

RF: You know we sell seeds to farmers. Those seeds get shipped to grain companies and provided to you know, uh, different processors. It’s really a processor decision in terms of what they want to label, you know not a Monsanto seed perspective. And we, as I said, we support you know the variety of voluntary labeling schemes that are out there, that you know, some companies are already using.

JH: You wouldn’t want to leave the impression though that Monsanto is uneasy about forthrightly saying we’re proud of this, we think this is a great technology, and we’re happy to put it not in the fine print but right in the big print on the…

RF: You know I’m absolutely proud of the track record in history. You know these products have now been used for nearly 30 years in the country, since their discovery in the early 80s. You know they’re used on the vast majority of the corn and soybean and cotton acres in North America and South America. They have an exceptional track record in terms of, you know, their benefits and their safety. And we’re a, we’re proud of the technology absolutely, but it’s still the purvue of the FDA in terms of the food labeling requirements

JH: Do you think the science is settled on the neonicotinoids, the use of chemicals that are genetically uh put into creatures that develop a pesticide resistance or a pest resistance? Are neonicotinoids something that concerns you, their absorption into food and animal tissues?

RF: I’ve looked at the science particularly as it relates to this area of bee health, which tends to be the concern point around the neo-nic products, in terms of colony collapse disorder. We’ve actually been doing quite a bit of research on bee health. And I would say our science and the science of a lot of scientific leaders, who are studying this, tend to point to a different culprit, which is the veroa mite. 

So, if you can imagine it. If you were a bee, a veroa mite would be about the size of a football on a person. And the veroa mite is latching onto the bee and draining it of its vital fluids but at the same time, it’s injecting into the bee maybe up to a dozen different viruses which then further weaken and kill the bee and that’s what causes the colony collapse disorder. And in fact, we’re doing a lot of research in that area. We acquired a company called Beeologics

JH: Right

RF: Which is using a new technology based on a Nobel Prize-winning discovery that we think can help improve bee health and we’re doing a lot of testing to see whether we can use that, that technology to eliminate very specifically the mites and the viruses and I think there are some very intriguing leads there that get us to the culprit behind colony collapse disorder.

JH: I just want to get you to respond to something that Eric Chivian, who is a doctor at the Harvard Medical, former Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment. He published this in the New Yorker: “A large body of evidence points to neonicotinoids as the main reason behind the recent die-off of honey bees around the world, you’ve addressed that. As a result, the most widely-used neonicotinoids have been banned in the European Union for at least the next year and a half. They are found in ground and surface waters and in the food we eat. They have been shown to disrupt nerve-cell activities in mammals. I'm deeply concerned," this doctor writes, "that neonicotinoids may impact humans as well." What do you say about that?

RF: We don't sell those products and I'm not privy to all the information that you've talked about there. I know these products have been approved previously in Europe and the US and they have an excellent safety record. They've been throughly studied; I know the EU is re-reviewing the data and may re-introduce those products in another couple of years.

JH: Do you understand how so people have a problem with thinking about seeds as intellectual property -- patentable intellectual property -- and so if you get a seed that might've been inadvertently fertilized by a GMO-produced plant, that you can be liable for actually using that seed if you're in Bangladesh or somewhere like that. Do you understand how people have a concern about that?

RF: I understand the concern; I understand how it's been used by activists and I understand the lack of any data behind it that supports that there's ever been an issue.

Here in the U.S. there was a large USDA task force called AC21 that brought together conventional farmers, organic farmers, GMO farmers -- and basically they convened for a couple of years and could not find a single incident where those theoretical occurred. In fact, I'd flip it all the way around and say that the great strength of US agriculture is its incredible diversity.

So let's just take, you know, one example here. I grew up on a small farm. When we were planting corn, the first thing we would do is, were we going to plant white corn or yellow corn, were we going to plant sweet corn, were we going to plant high-amylose corn? Some farmers were planting popcorn, some were planting blue corn.

The farmers would get together; you'd talk to your neighbor. If you were planting white corn across from a yellow corn, you'd talk about planting dates and pollination dates --

JH: I have that problem in my own garden.

RF: And that's all worked out. And so the strength of US agriculture is the fact that, even in a crop like corn that is composed of 20 different sub-crops, we can grow those crops and grow them successfully.

The same thing has happened between conventional and GMO crops. While there's stories you can find on the Internet, there's really been no practical implication, relative to the impact of growing these crops side by side. And as a company, I think the great strength of US agriculture is in its diversity, and the fact that we can make conventional, organic and GMO farming work side by side to give the market the flexibility it needs, and consumers the products that they want.

JH: In a recent article in The New Yorker, a Monsanto executive was asked about the branding of Monsanto in light of the recent controversy, and he admitted, you know, we'd change the name if we could, but it's a little late for that. Is this a tough time to be a Monsanto executive and are you stuck with a brand that you're going to have to live with in this century?

RF: I would say that, when I look back, you know, we were really excited with the new technologies that we were able to develop that help farmers control their weeds or reduce their insect crops and losses. We put almost all of our effort, starting in the late '90s, in communication to farmers around the world and our customers, the benefits of the products.

The communication to farmers has gone extraordinarily well. Since the '90s, we're selling biotech crops in 30 countries; we're reaching literally hundreds of millions of farmers. But the mistake we made is that we did not have a communication path direct to the consumer. And so while we were really absent from the consumer dialogue, the critics, the activists, lit up the internet with accusations and misleading statements that we're now, as a company, working really hard to address.

So I would say that the big change in Monsanto the last couple of years, we are participating in that dialogue.

JH: We interviewed a scientist awhile ago, just to give you an experience that we've had, talking very much about the bad science of GMO critics and the hysteria that they've created, in terms of fears of agricultural products from Monsanto and other groups. And we got huge pushback from listeners, saying you bought a line, you've taken the propaganda.

And so we asked today, I'm going to interview you, what should I ask you? And this isn't scientific, but this is just a typical example of some of the questions that they ask. They're not even terribly responsible questions, but they represent an emotional cord here. "Why are you strong-arming El Salvador over their use of local seeds?" "Do you frequently use the US government to bully small countries?" "Why do you punish farmers when non-Monsanto soybeans land on their farm?" "Is he feeding the same stuff they're growing to his or her children" -- and they didn't use the word "stuff" there. What's your response to that sense out there?

RF: Again, going back to the example on vaccines. The whole fear of vaccines was created by junk science. Here are the facts: there's 7.2 billion people on the planet today. All of the estimates say that by 2050, that will reach 9.5 billion people. We also know that we'll see another couple billion people join the middle classes as world wealth increases across Asia and Africa.

So between now and 2050, we need to double the food supply. That's probably the greatest challenge facing mankind. And instead of spending our time talking about the activists, and the myths on the internet, we should be having the conversation about how do we use the technologies we have today; how do we invent new ones; how do we talk about food conservation and waste reduction; and how do we really build a plan so that we can achieve food security by 2050?