Meet Mr. Frankenfood

Be thankful if you have the choice to eat non-GMO foods – if that is your preference. My choice is to embrace the science that is helping feed the worlds hungry with healthy food – and keep your food bill down.
St. Louis

Before you can finish typing ” Monsanto MON -0.88% employees” into Google, GOOGL +0.02% the search engine suggests “Monsanto evil.” The world’s largest-grossing seed seller ranks between one and 15 on any list of the world’s most-hated corporations. The annual “March Against Monsanto,” world-wide protests against genetic modification, drew an estimated two million people in some 400 cities last year.

Opponents claim that genetic modification poses health risks, and groups such as the Non-GMO Project, Just Label It! and others want labels required on all foods containing GM ingredients. Vermont passed a GM-labeling bill in May, and Oregon and Colorado will hold referendums on labeling in November. Companies including Ben & Jerry’s and Chipotle Mexican Grill CMG -0.60% say they are removing GM ingredients from their food, and General Mills GIS -0.96% recently made Cheerios cereal GMO-free.

Caught in this food fight is Brett Begemann, Monsanto’s mild-mannered president and chief operating officer since last October, the son of a farmer who looks like a fellow you’d see winning a produce contest at the state fair. In a conference room at Monsanto’s headquarters outside St. Louis, we have lunch—a salad made with the company’s Frescada lettuce, a crunchy leaf that is a cross between romaine and iceberg lettuce and was produced, as it happens, through conventional breeding techniques.

Does that mean it’s genetically modified? Yes. You may have noticed that lettuce doesn’t grow in the wild. For a millennium, farmers have genetically improved crops through breeding, choosing the best mom and pop plants to make a bitter-tasting cabbage into something more palatable.

Then in the 1980s biotechnology allowed scientists to add desirable traits from other organisms into a plant’s DNA. The result: seeds that can, for instance, tolerate drought or resist pests. “It’s scientific evolution,” Mr. Begemann says. “We can do surgeries in ways we couldn’t do them before.” So can we now in agriculture.

The use of biotechnology has skyrocketed since GM crops were first commercialized in 1996, and more than 90% of all acres planted with corn and soybeans are now GM crops. These crops, typically fed to livestock and used as ingredients in other foods, are in nearly 80% of the products on grocery-store shelves.

The switch to GM crops happened so rapidly because farmers favored the new technology over the traditional. “The seeds that were available back then are still available today,” Mr. Begemann says. “Farmers just choose not to buy them.” In 2011 farmers earned $19.8 billion added economic benefit from GM crops, according to a 2013 report by the U.K.-based PG Economics. Genetically modified seeds are more resilient, yield more crops on less land and require less labor. A July Thomson Reuters report said by 2025 “price fluctuations and food shortages will become things of the past,” as GM technology proliferates.

Mr. Begemann had a front-row seat at the revolution. He joined Monsanto as a salesman in 1983—the same year the company genetically modified a plant cell—after graduating with an agricultural economics degree from the University of Missouri. “I was going to be a farmer,” he explains, having grown up on a livestock and grain farm. But the year he finished college “there was a severe drought in Missouri. Not a good time to expand a farming operation with your father.”

So he took a job at a company that was figuring out how to make drought more manageable for farmers and never looked back. In 1996 Monsanto commercialized its first GM crop, a herbicide-resistant soybean seed. Why did it take so long to bring GM seeds to market?

“The biotech-derived products that we eat are the most highly tested and regulated components in what we consume,” Mr. Begemann says. A new seed must be reviewed by the Department of Agriculture. Then there’s a voluntary check from the Food and Drug Administration. If the GM seed includes insecticides or pesticides, as most do, the Environmental Protection Agency gets a look. It takes about $100 million to get one seed from discovery to market. Crops that are bred conventionally, on the other hand, undergo no government testing. None.

Research shows that GM crops are just as safe. “Every regulatory agency—I’m not talking U.S.; I’m talking the world, including Europe—has said these things are as nutritious and healthy as anything else,” Mr. Begemann points out. That includes the FDA, the World Health Organization and the British Royal Society, all of which have declared GM crops as safe as conventional crops.

None of this has stopped the protests. In a recent poll for The Wall Street Journal by the market-research firm Nielsen, about 60% of 1,200 consumers said they had heard of GMOs, and roughly half said they try not to eat them. The most common explanation was it “doesn’t sound like something I should eat.”

Mr. Begemann says people are often persuaded when they learn more about the technology. But some of the debate, he says, is “emotional.” The anxiety is fueled by “outright myths,” including the one that GMOs aren’t safe to eat. But no one is getting sick. Another myth is that crops don’t increase yield. Yet farmers keep buying the seeds: “So you’re telling me farmers are making dumb decisions? Because they’re pretty smart people.”

Some food companies have been feeding consumer concern about GMOs, but Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t claim that GMOs threaten human safety. Rather, it styles itself “an environmentally friendly, socially progressive brand,” and GM foods don’t fit that image. One irony is that GM crops help the environment by reducing pesticide use. Thanks to fewer sprays and less tillage, GM crops in 2012 reduced world-wide carbon emissions by 26.7 billion kilograms—the equivalent of taking 11.8 million cars off the road for a year, according to a 2013 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

The more extreme skeptics cast Monsanto as an evildoer peddling mutant Frankenfood. “Monsatan” is one nickname, and groups such as Occupy Monsanto exist solely to malign the company. Mr. Begemann takes personally the charge that Monsanto is poisoning food. “It just blows my mind,” he says, “that anybody would ever imagine that I would ever be involved in producing any kind of food that would ever put me, my family or now a grandson at risk.” He adds: “I go to the same grocery store that everybody else goes to.”

But Mr. Begemann admits that Monsanto could have done more to educate consumers about its products and keep the GM fear from festering. “I wish we had started sooner,” he says. “We were focused on our farmers.”

So wouldn’t labeling food containing GM ingredients help allay the critics by satisfying the demand for transparency? Mr. Begemann understands that consumers are more interested than ever in what they’re eating, and he says he welcomes that. “There’s a big group of people out there who really just want to know more,” he says. Monsanto supports the FDA’s approach to labeling, which requires food companies to disclose if GM ingredients constitute what the agency calls a “meaningful” difference from foods created with conventionally bred crops. And the FDA already allows companies to label foods containing GMOs voluntarily, which Monsanto also supports.

He talks about “having a dialogue” and “coming to the table” with those concerned about genetic modification. It remains to be seen if that strategy will quell a backlash based mostly on fear and emotion. He doesn’t discuss what else Monsanto will do, but the company is likely to spend big to fight the labeling movement. Monsanto poured in about $8 million to defeat a labeling initiative on the California ballot in 2012.

He also notes that food companies pay the direct costs of labeling, and so consumers ultimately pay in higher prices. The state-based labeling initiatives on ballots and in legislatures would produce a patchwork system that is even more expensive. “Imagine a food delivery truck that has to stop when it gets to the Mississippi River, unload, cross the river and reload,” he says. “I don’t care how you cut it: It increases costs. It’s just not practical.”

Besides, he adds, we already have a useful label at the federal level: the organic seal. “Anybody who wants to stay away from GM can buy organic. That choice is there,” he says. The Department of Agriculture offers organic certification to farmers and food companies who meet a set of standards, one of which is proving that their food doesn’t contain genetically modified ingredients.

“So why does the organic industry continue to push the agenda?” Mr. Begemann asks. First, it directly benefits: The sale of “non-GMO” labeled food went up 28% last year, according to Nielsen, so it’s a good time to make a buck selling organic food. But more substantively, the movement stymies the use of biotechnology. “This never really was about labeling,” Mr. Begemann says. “It’s about: How do we eliminate these crops?”

Movement toward that end would have profound consequences for the future of farming. Imagine the world as an apple. “Cut it in half, and then cut it again until you have it in 32nds.” One of those pieces? “That’s the land we use for agriculture.” The peel of that one piece? “That’s the topsoil that feeds us all,” he says. “It takes about 100 years to build an inch of topsoil. It takes a bad storm on a weekend to destroy it.”

While that’s all the land we’ve got, demand for more and better food is skyrocketing as global population grows. By 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth, and they will want dinner. GM crops are not a panacea, Mr. Begemann reminds me many times, but “just one of many tools” that farmers should be allowed to choose.

Yet feeding the world’s population is already a problem, and it’s here that Mr. Begemann gets fired up. “This idea that we’ve got this abundance of food and everybody’s eating fine and we don’t need to change anything? Hogwash.” Even in the U.S., millions of people live paycheck to paycheck. “That’s all they have. And we act like these little price increases—$400 a year on groceries, oh, what’s the big deal?—for them, that’s a big deal.”

Years ago Mr. Begemann traveled to a village in India where he met a farmer who increased his yield—and his profits—after he began growing Monsanto’s insect-resistant Bollgard cotton. The men didn’t speak the same language, but they had one word in common. “The farmer pointed to the second story on his little house, and said ‘Bollgard,’ ” Mr. Begemann recalls. “Then he pointed to a scooter next to his house, and said ‘Bollgard.’ . . . Then he just lit up, and pointed to two children, standing in front of his house in school uniforms, and said ‘Bollgard.’ ”

Mr. Begemann uses cotton—not corn or soybeans—as an example because it’s the only GM crop approved for planting in India. Governments around the world have buckled under political pressure to limit biotechnology.

“If you can afford to buy organic, and that’s what you want? Fantastic,” he says. “But 900 million people in the world go to bed hungry every night, and 600 million of them are farmers. Don’t push this on them.”

Ms. Bachelder is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

Meet Mr. Frankenfood – WSJ.


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