Monsanto’s New Biotech Tools Must Avoid the Same Public Relations Fate as GMOs

January 9, 2017, 9:49 PM UTC
Photo by Bloomberg via Getty Images

Consumers have come to embrace technology in essentially all parts of their lives—except in what they eat. Hence the intense dislike by a vocal consumer group of products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ingredients that are difficult to understand.

But whether we like it or not, agriculture is a high-tech industry. Case in point: Agricultural behemoth Monsanto spent a whopping $1.5 billion on R&D last year, or about 11% of its revenue—a percentage that’s pretty much in line with Amazon’s spending.

Based on an R&D pipeline update Monsanto (MON) gave last week, it’s clear the company will increasingly be directing its resources toward what chief technology officer Robb Fraley called “the next generation of advanced biotech tools” that range from CRISPR to Meganucleases to zinc fingers. These tools, Fraley said, “let our scientists precisely change literally every base pair of every gene in the crop genome.”

It’s the precision of these tools that is key here, as is the fact that regulatory agencies currently do not view them in the same category as GMOs (and therefore are not subject to the same lengthy regulatory reviews.) “That offers the opportunity to reduce cost and time, which is really critical,” Fraley said.

This reduction in cost and time it takes to get these traits to market has the potential for Monsanto and its competitors to avoid some of the criticisms they have faced through their work with GMOs. With tools like CRISPR, plant scientists would be able to focus on developing traits other than the pest resistance and herbicide tolerance that dominate the GMO market—something such as enhanced nutrition that might be more palatable to consumers. They could also work on solutions for crops that face devastating disease beyond the high-value ones like soy and corn that the company currently focuses on. And speeding up the whole process will help farmers deal with an onslaught of new pests and disease in the face of climate change.

But the biggest challenge and also opportunity—since those two things usually go together—will be in getting the public to follow the same path as regulatory agencies and not lump tools like CRISPR in the same category as GMOs, therefore avoiding the same level of disdain and distrust.

Fraley acknowledge as much on the call. “It’s an important opportunity to rethink communication,” he said. “In the case of GMO technology, we clearly made a mistake in not reaching out to the public in not having that conversation up front.”

This time around, Monsanto cannot afford to make the same error.

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