Examination of Witnesses (Questions 324
WEDNESDAY 1 JULY 1998
and DR STEPHEN
324. Good morning, Dr Baker. Can I welcome
you and your colleagues to Sub-Committee D and thank you very
much for having agreed to come and give evidence to us to help
us in our enquiry into genetic modification in agriculture. Could
I start by asking you to introduce yourself and your colleagues
and perhaps say which parts of Monsanto you come from? Perhaps
at the same time you could say what is the extent of Monsanto's
activities in this country and Europe at the present time.
(Dr Baker) Thank you, my Lord, and members of
the Committee. We are happy to be here answering your questions
this morning and providing what information we can. My responsibility
is for Government Affairs for Monsanto in Europe and I am based
in Brussels. To my left I have Ann Foster, who is UK-based for
Monsanto and she looks after our Government and Public Affairs
operations in this country and I will ask her to respond about
our operations here. To my right I have Dr Stephen Waters who
heads up our Regulatory Affairs operation for Europe. Perhaps
Ann Foster would like to speak to the operations here.
(Miss Foster) In the United Kingdom Monsanto trades
under the name "Monsanto plc". We have three divisions:
pharmaceutical, agriculture, food and nutrition. You obviously
are most interested in our agricultural division which in the
United Kingdom is primarily devoted to sales of our range of agricultural
crop protection products. As you know, we do not undertake any
commercial sales of genetically modified seeds in the United Kingdom,
although we are undertaking trials for GM seeds on the basis of
the licences which have been granted by the relevant authorities.
Chairman] Thank you
very much for that background information. Perhaps we can move
to our substantive questions. Lord Gallacher?
325. Dr Baker, what crops are now being
worked on? Is the focus still on herbicide and pest resistance
or has it moved to development of more direct benefit to the consumer?
Is your technology assisting developing countries?
(Dr Baker) If I may, my Lord, I think I would
ask Stephen Waters to provide the answer to that question.
(Dr Waters) Currently we are working on somewhere
around 20 different crops. The main focus is on those crops which
are widely grown throughout the world and form the basis of our
diet. These include crops such as wheat, maize, soybean and rice.
326. What are called "commodity crops".
(Dr Waters) Commodity crops, yes. Also in the
European context crops like sugar beet and oil seed rape. We are
also working on a number of fruit and vegetable crops, including
tomato, lettuce, apples, to give some examples, and a number of
tropical crops such as sugar cane and oil palms. The sorts of
traits that we are developing could be broadly classified into
three different areas. The area which is the most advanced and
which most people here are familiar with are the so-called agronomic
traits. These would encompass such things as resistance to Roundup
herbicides. This is being applied in a range of crops, including
soybeans, maize, sugar beet, to cite a few examples, and traits
such as insect protection, protection of crops like potato, cotton
and maize against caterpillar pests. Further agronomic traits
would be in the area of protection against fungal diseases, which
is particularly important in the European context. Fungal pathogens
cause significant losses in crops such as wheat and potatoes.
We are looking at protecting potatoes against leaf blight disease
(Phythopther), and also wheat against a whole range of fungal
infections such as head scab which causes about two billion dollars'
worth of damage worldwide every year. That is a review of the
agronomic traits. What you would perhaps describe as traits with
consumer benefits would fall into a second wave of developments.
In a number of the major crops that I have mentioned we do have
programmes targeted at trying to improve the quality or safety
characteristics of these crops. Some examples would be that in
corn we are looking at the development of modifications in the
oil content and oil composition in order to produce oils which
result in reduced cholesterol levels. In the area of soybean we
are again looking at oil content as well as oil composition. Some
examples of products which are in development are oils with an
increased stearate content, a fatty acid present in oils which
is important in the production of margarines, so we are developing
a product which has high stearate levels which could avoid the
need for chemical hydrogenation during the production of margarines.
Another example is cotton; we are working on modifications to
fibre strength and fibre length, also the possibility of producing
coloured cotton to avoid the need for chemical treatments to change
colour. Another example would be rice. We are looking at increasing
the vitamin content, also decreasing the content of allergenic
proteins. This is a series of products which are still at the
development stage, probably two to three years away from the market
as far as the earliest products are concerned. A third area is
using plants as providers of raw materials, using renewable energy
resources for the production of such things as pharmaceuticals,
food and feed additives, also the production of biodegradable
polymers in plants. Of the three waves, products are currently
on the market from the first wave and the second and third waves
are in development and these will lead to future products.
327. The question was asking about developing
countries. There seems to be a great deal of concern about the
use of patent protection on products such as the ones you have
mentioned, even if they have great value. Is there a concern amongst
developing countries which are going to use these products that
they will not be able to afford your products or that they are
going to suffer from the development you are making?
(Dr Waters) Some of the things that I have mentioned
do have an immediate fit in a number of developing countries.
As an example, the insect protected cotton product which was commercialised
in the United States about three years ago: we are looking now
towards introducing that product in both India and China. Both
of those countries have significant areas of cotton, so that this
product could bring immediate benefits to those countries. On
the question of future products, again some of the products that
I cited, such as rice, with increased vitamin content or decreased
levels of allergenic proteins, clearly have a good technical fit
in south-east Asia covering the whole range of developing countries.
Intellectual property protection is certainly an issue as far
as we are concerned, in terms of recuperating the investment in
those products, but in most cases that will not stop us moving
forward with the introduction of new products. We also have a
number of projects under the umbrella of an organisation called
ISAAA, which is a non-profit organisation whose function is to
transfer technology from developed countries to the developing
countries. One specific example where Monsanto is involved is
in the transfer of virus resistance into sweet potatoes in Kenya.
This is a project which has been ongoing since 1990, in which
a number of Kenyan scientists have come to Monsanto's facilities
in St Louis for training in the basic techniques of genetic transformation.
We have made available to the Kenyan research institutes certain
technologies and patents including the virus protection technology.
We have made this available free of charge for use in Kenya in
order to develop local varieties which are protected against local
(Dr Baker) Just to add to that, some of the developing
countries which Dr Waters has mentioned, such as India for cotton,
if they can move to using this technology to produce cotton themselves,
they will also want patent protection within that country because
if they purchase the product and want to promote it as, for example,
Indian cotton, they will want protection for that particular market
themselves. There is a commercial interest in the country of origin
of the product that is going into international trade and it will
be important for them to protect those markets through a patent.
I think we will see as one of the developments sources of many
of these new biotechnology products under development as the developing
(Miss Foster) In terms of assistance to developing
countries part of the problem is access to the technology, and
particularly in terms of being able to afford it. We have just
begun a project under the generic name of Micro-Credit where we
are investigating opportunities of working with partners to provide
no interest or low interest loans requiring no collateral so that
communities can themselves use this technology. We have just announced
a partnership with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to offer these
facilities to local communities and local farmers. I could let
you have more information about that. The Micro-Credit project
is at its very early stage but it does involve Monsanto employees
working with NGOs in developing countries to try and identify
areas where this particular initiative could enable people in
local communities to have greater access to these technologies
for their own benefit.
328. Could I come in and ask you about the
no-tillage system? Is that a direction that you are moving in?
What is involved and what sort of scale would apply?
(Dr Waters) Conservation tillage is a relatively
recent innovation. What it is in essence is an agricultural system
which avoids the need for ploughing prior to sowing. One of the
great difficulties, particularly in dry climates, is ploughing
results in a significant amount of topsoil erosion. As a means
of avoiding erosion, systems have been developed whereby the seeds
can be sown directly into the stubble of the previous crop. However,
this requires chemical control of the stubble in order to avoid
having the crop being suffocated by the weeds which emerge amongst
the stubble. It involves a treatment with a non-selective herbicide
followed by direct drilling of the seeds into the stubble. As
the crop emerges, it does not face competition from the weeds
in the stubble; it maintains coverage of the topsoil which protects
against erosion and it also creates a favourable climate for insects
and other organisms, so it is a more environmentally friendly
approach to the production of arable crops such as corn and soybean.
This technique, I should say, has been developed independently
of biotechnology and has been in operation for probably the last
five to 10 years in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and to
a certain extent in southern Europe. Some of the crops developed
through biotechnology do have a good fit with conservation or
no-till in that it provides more flexibility for farmers to be
able to sow a crop which is tolerant to the specific herbicide
which is used to kill off the weeds in the stubble from the previous
crop, and so the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops such
a Roundup Ready soybeans is encouraging a shift towards the use
of conservation tillage in order to derive all of the benefits
that I mentioned from conservation tillage.
329. Is your company worldwide doing any
work on animal genetics? My second question is to ask you to speculate
and imagine yourself being in front of this Committee in 20 or
30 years' time. Could you just speculate as to what you think
might be coming in the realm of practical agriculture in that
space of time as knowledge about genetics becomes much better?
For instance, many of the things you have told us you are doing
this morning are very closely focused on dealing with insects
or with other pests. I give you one example which has been delayed,
and that is the possibility of a nitrogen fixing wheat which I
can remember being told 15 years ago would be in existence now,
but it is not. I know there are difficulties. If you could create
a nitrogen fixing wheat that would hugely change the face of the
earth in many ways. Wheat could be grown where it is not now.
Yields would be hugely increased. The effect on other wheat growing
areas would be immense. You know all the arguments. Please speculate
as to where you think we might get to with all this in 20 or 30
(Dr Baker) My Lord, that is a difficult question
because there is no precise answer. In terms of work we were doing
on animal genetics, I am not sure what you are referring to in
particular there, but to my knowledge we do not have any extensive
work going on in the area of transforming animals of the nature
of Dolly the sheep. I assume that is what you are referring to.
In terms of where we might be in 20 years' time in terms of practical
agriculture, the fact that nitrogen fixing wheat is not available
does not mean that it is not a good idea. It is simply a very
difficult technical problem to achieve that. Stephen, maybe you
might want to talk a little about that. In my terms it is a bit
like asking the electronics industry 30 years ago where would
they be now. I think if you look back predictions have been all
wrong, so that is why I say it is a difficult question to answer.
(Dr Waters) I would be happy to speculate a little
bit. The vision that we have perhaps even extends beyond 20 to
30 years from now. Our vision is that we need to be working towards
more sustainable production systems given that the amount of area
which is available today is essentially the amount of area that
we are going to have available in 20 or 30 years' time to produce
all of the food that we need. In that time-frame the demand for
food is expected to triple and therefore we are faced with the
challenge of producing three times as much food on the same area
of land. That poses all sorts of challenges in terms of increasing
the amount of productivity per unit of land but at the same time
decreasing the environmental impact of those production systems,
and so my vision is that we will be dramatically increasing the
yields of crops, either directly through the introduction of genes
which can increase the levels of harvests, or indirectly through
introducing genes with tolerance to stresses such as drought or
salinity, probably a whole host of mechanisms that one can imagine
to try to increase the amount of production per unit of land.
At the same time the example you mentioned of nitrogen fixing
genes would allow crops to fix their own nitrogen and avoid the
need to apply nitrogen fertilisers, which is a much more sustainable
approach to production. I see us working on the balance between
increasing productivity and decreasing inputs.
330. What do you mean by increasing yields
(Dr Waters) Yield is essentially the production
of carbohydrates. For instance, in wheat a large part of the wheat
grain is starch and so if one could modify the starch metabolism
pathway in plants, one could envisage increasing production of
starch from wheat.
331. You see, you continually as a company
come back to this business of increasing world population and
diminishing resources to feed that population. If I may say so,
that is a card which has been played ever since Malthus started
playing it all those centuries ago. It is a situation which has
never really occurred because the capacity of mankind to produce
foodand I am talking about the developed world, I am not
talking about the undeveloped worldhas outstripped the
growth in population, contrary to what Malthus and you are saying.
Do you not feel slightly embarrassed by just tagging on to a somewhat
(Dr Baker) If I may answer that, you have to look
at the whole picture. To some extent your question was regarding
where would we be 30 years from now, and which must include the
total picture. There is an issue of a growing population for whom
food needs to be provided, not only in the developed world. At
the same time, as in past years, we need to be conscious of the
fact that in many ways we cannot continue to provide ever increasing
amounts of food with the techniques that we use now. Coming back
to your question about what will the picture be in 30 years' time,
I would say to you that one thing that will be different will
be what we now consider to be the chemical industry. There will
be a lot of those products which are produced by the chemical
industry which will be produced by farmers in crops much more
efficiently. One other effect, if we follow what Dr Waters was
saying, will be a coming together of the pharmaceutical and nutrition
and health business to somewhere in the middle where much of the
health care of the population will be provided through the food
supply. That health care will be available to everybody, not just
to the developed world, simply because you can produce crops anywhere
there is fertile land. One would not have to put up a big factory;
it would simply be replaced with a crop that is suitable to plant.
We do need to provide food for that growing population and this
is one of the technologies that can help. It is not necessarily
the only one.
332. It is said that one of the problems
of public acceptance of GMs is that most of your GM development
has been in commodity crops. As far as I know, in this country
the only wholly GM products the consumer can buy are tomato paste
and vegetarian cheese. I am not sure whether Monsanto itself is
involved in a whole GM product yet. Evidence seems to suggest
that if you want to get more consumer acceptance of GM products
the consumer will have to see the benefits. You mentioned lettuces
and apples earlier in your comments. When do you see a Monsanto
whole GM product being on the market here in Europe?
(Miss Foster) I will respond briefly although
I will refer to Dr Waters about the actual timescale. You are
right in that the first imported crops in Europe have been genetically
modified soya and maize. It is absolutely true to say that it
is quite difficult to emphasise the consumer benefits as these
particular agronomic traits (herbicide resistance) are so far
back in the chain. As we work on other agronomic traits it will
be possible for the consumer to see more benefits, particularly
in the reduction in chemical applications. We have already seen
this with potatoes which have been marketed in Canada, the insect
protected potatoes which require much less application of chemicals
in their production and because consumers can identify with this
they have been very favourably received.
333. The farmer can identify with that,
not the consumer.
(Miss Foster) No, the consumer as well.
334. How can the consumer identify with
(Miss Foster) Because I think consumers are quite
well aware that conventionally grown potatoes do require chemical
applications both pre and post harvest, and if it can be explained
to them by company information that this form of producing potatoes
enables a reduction in the use of chemicals they will be well
received. In Canada and the US they are called New Leaf potatoes
and these have been sold direct to consumers through the supermarkets
with supporting information telling them about the reduction in
chemical use. They have been very well received on the market.
In terms of future products, which I think links to a previous
question, I can see the development of products with an improved
nutritional profile, particularly in the alteration of fatty acid
content and also vitamin and mineral content. I can envisage products
with increased antioxidant content and antioxidants are believed
to have protective factors against the incidence of certain diet
related cancers. In terms of the timescale I will ask Dr Waters
to answer that.
335. Before we come on to the timescale,
would you expect those to have great consumer attraction, those
(Miss Foster) Yes, I would think so, because I
think there has been considerable evidence that consumers are
very much conscious of the relationship between diet and disease.
The popularity of low and low saturated fat products have shown
that consumers would find these benefits attractive.
(Dr Waters) In terms of the timescales, the most
advanced product is the high stearate oil which I believe is targeted
to be commercialised in the United States around 2001. We could
expect that in Europe it will be available several years after
336. Sorry, I did not catch what you said.
(Dr Waters) High stearate: stearic acid is a fatty
acid which changes the chemical properties of the oil which is
used in margarine production.
337. If you were to go into a supermarket
and ask people, "Would you prefer to buy X product with antioxidants?",
do you think they would understand what you were talking about?
(Miss Foster) It would have to be explained to
them but if it was explained in terms that people do identify
with quite readily, there is in the United Kingdom enormous interest
in the link between diet and disease. Yes, it would be very popular.
(Dr Baker) Certainly in relation to your question,
Lord Reay, about whether consumers understand, in the case of
the potatoes that Miss Foster was talking about, the label on
the potato stated that these were genetically modified and produced
without the use of herbicides, which was a sufficient message
for the consumers to understand and to want this product.
338. Was it a more expensive product like
an organic product or a cheaper one like the tomato paste?
(Dr Waters) A premium was asked but the farmers
were also paid a premium because not only could they avoid insecticide
applications but the quality of the potato was improved. The farmers
are paid a premium based on the size and shape of the potato so
farmers benefited, and also the consumers because of the improved
quality of the potato, and they were prepared to pay a premium
in recognition of the improved quality but also the fact that
they had been produced using less insecticide. The customers put
a value on that and they were prepared to pay for it.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
339. May I just follow on from the point
that Lord Jopling was making? In fact we have a billion people
in the world today who are undernourished by our standards and
frequently we see harrowing scenes of people starving to death
throughout the world, so we are not completely dealing with the
demands as they stand at present. We have increased our production
to meet extra demand by the use of fertilisers and insecticides.
That has been one of the main developments that has made it possible.
Would you argue that using your kinds of products we would be
able to reduce the use of fertilisers and insecticides and such
other aids to production?
(Dr Baker) The simple answer to that is yes, and
in fact we have provided you I think with some further evidence
laying that out exactly. To give you some examples, if one takes
cotton, which is produced in both the developing and developed
world, in the on-farm use of that, studies by various academic
groups have shown that farmers, when they plant this product,
use somewhere between 85 and 90 per cent less chemicals to control
that crop. When you think about cotton, in particular as the crop
with the highest use of chemical insecticides, that I think illustrates
the point that you are making. If you are talking about the developing
world, of course what is happening is that the plant is growing
its own protection in the soil and so there is no necessity to
import it or develop it or to ship it around to those particular