Who makes GE crops?

When it comes to genetic engineering in agriculture, most of the attention on the web and in films focuses on Monsanto when there are several other big companies (and a lot of little ones) that also work in this area. Reuters has just published a list of the big six, for your perusal:

  • Monsanto Co (MON.N) – Based in St. Louis, the company posted record net sales of $11.7 billion and net income of $2.1 billion for fiscal 2009. Among its key products are corn, soybeans and cotton that tolerate weed-killing treatments and resist pests.
  • Pioneer Hi-Bred – Subsidiary of DuPont (DD.N) based in Johnston, Iowa. Produces, markets and sells hybrid seed in nearly 70 countries worldwide and is the closest rival to Monsanto for market share in U.S. biotech corn seed market. Revenue totaled $4 billion in 2008.
  • Syngenta AG (SYNN.VX) – The Basel, Switzerland-based company operates in 90 countries and generated 2008 sales of $11.6 billion. Collaborating with International Rice Research Institute to improve rice.
  • Dow AgroSciences – Subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co (DOW.N) based in Indianapolis, Indiana. With global sales of $4.5 billion, company offers insect-protected corn and cotton, among other seed products, and is expanding its research into wheat.
  • BASF (BASF.DE) – Based in Ludwigshafen, Germany, this leading global chemical company is increasingly focusing its health and nutrition division on plant biotechnology to increase crop yields. Like its rivals, BASF is working on a drought-tolerant corn seed. Revenue in its agricultural division totaled 3.4 billion euros in 2008.
  • Bayer CropScience AG – The unit of Bayer AG (BAYGn.DE), had 2008 sales of 6.4 billion euros and operates in 120 countries. The company is pursuing 56 “bioscience” research projects involving six crops.

Hopefully people will come to know that there is more to the private sector than just Monsanto. Lists of the big ones are easy to make, though, what about a profile of the little companies? Start-ups in Africa, South America? What about China?
This brings up another point. The perception is often that genetic engineering is a “corporate technology,” which is a nonsensical term. Technologies are not “corporate” or not, but they can be used by corporations, or not. Is Organic Ag a “corporate technology?” Corporations do use it, and market it. Biodynamic Agriculture is literally owned by Demeter, what does that make it?
Part of this perception that genetic engineering is a “corporate” thing, as opposed to a “democratic” thing is that most people know that private companies commercialize GE crops, even if they know know the name of Monsanto. However there are numerous government labs and agencies, university research labs and groups, and non-profit organizations that also do research on genetic engineering, some of them have even developed and released (or will soon release) GE cultivars. For example, Papaya’s resistant to the Ringspot Virus were developed by the University of Hawaii and Cornell among others. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is working on cassava breeding and engineering for protein, mineral, and pro-Vitamin A content as well as disease resistance and resistance to post-harvest degradation and reduced cyanide poisoning for African countries. The BioCassava Plus project is part of the HarvestPlus program, which includes many other similar projects such as Golden Rice.
What are some others?
I imagine that not every academic lab wants to cry out “Hey we’re making GMOs!” when their research can be a target for vandalism. When I came to UC Davis in the fall of 1999, some fields and a field building were destroyed as a protest against genetic engineering – which destroyed no GE plants, just a grad student’s years of work. The same year, a research building in Michigan was burnt to the ground, and members of the Earth Liberation Front were caught and sentenced just last year. (While I worked in one academic lab some years later that was studying drought tolerance in tomatoes, a broken window pane in the greenhouse was cause for brief alarm while we made sure that no one broke in.)
Although the research environment in the US is a lot more calm today than at the turn of the milennium, and few cases of vandalism happen here (unlike, say, Germany or the UK), there is probably still reluctance on the part of academic labs to broadcast their work related to genetic engineering outside the scientific literature.
I once covered a protest that happened at UC Davis over the Dendrome Project, (article available here) a mere database of tree genome research, so you can see that even the suggestion of what might be going on in university labs can spark angry responses.
Nevertheless, there are many publicly-funded labs in the US and beyond that are doing work on genetic engineering, from making virus-resistant grapes to phytoremediation at UC Berkeley, and the public doesn’t really know about them. What public labs or research programs do you know about that are doing work on genetic engineering, from basic science to applied?
Any smaller companies working on GE crops? I know of one, Mendel Biotechnology, which has been mentioned here before. Then there’s Ventria Bioscience as well.
Let’s make a list so that maybe we could help people understand the full scope of who works in this field, and what they work on.
Reuters asks Is Monsanto the answer or the problem? Maybe part of the problem is that the media isn’t doing much to help people hear about anything other than Monsanto’s latest stock prices? Let’s help them out.

Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication.

11 comments

  1. I was under the impression that small biotech companies and research groups couldn’t really compete with large evilish corporations due to the strict testing required before a GM crop can be commercialized. Not saying extensive testing isn’t necessary, just that only large corporations can afford eight years of testing.

  2. You are right, Benjamin, it takes about a million bucks to put a GE crop through the testing required by regulations in the US and elsewhere. The Golden Rice project is going through it, as well as BioCassava Plus I believe.
    In the case of Mendel Biotechnology, I believe they are licensing their soybean yield trait to Monsanto, who may be footing the bill for the testing.
    It makes you wonder if the regulations are there to keep the big corps in power…? They certainly help keep the smaller ones from getting involved.

  3. I’m not going to limit myself to crops–I actually think that helps to broaden the conversation on the technology as well.
    Arcadia Biosciences, referred to here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ethicalman/2009/03/is_the_green_movement_part_of_the_problem.html
    Protalix is an Israeli company (I’m starting to hear a lot about Israeli biotech, actually…) they make a human protein in carrot cultures that treats Gaucher disease. http://news.moneycentral.msn.com/ticker/article.aspx?Feed=AP&Date=20091015&ID=10494825&Symbol=PLX
    ArborGen LLC makes that blight resistant chestnut tree I discussed in the forum http://www.prweb.com/releases/American_Chestnut/UGA_Research/prweb2629434.htm

  4. A lot of small biotech firms involved are probably partnering with bigger biotech firms – I know Monsanto has a bunch of different collaborations at any given time, I’d assume other companies do the same.

  5. You could add Indian companies like the large Mahyco and the smaller Metahelix. In Canada there is Sembiosys, Performance Plants etc. In Seattle, Targeted Growth. China much of the agbio comes from Public Sector institutions that then commercialize themselves. nOt much activity in South Africa but there is a seed stage fund that supports agbio so maybe in future?

  6. Great suggestions so far! Of course, I forgot Arcadia – that’s an important one and a good example of a smaller company licensing to bigger ones. I believe their nitrogen use efficiency is licensed to Monsanto for one crop and Pioneer for another.
    There might be more smaller companies than people realize.

  7. Karl, I agree with your facts. Certainly, smaller companies are as much in the biotech game for big money as the large ones. Universities have always been at the forefront of agra research, although this seems to be different now with so much money being made.
    Concern for me is not that GE plants and animals exist and that these companies are making a buck, but it’s the fact that they exist and we consume them without knowing about it. You name these large corporations that we have to trust because their GMO products are automatically assumed to be safe and there is little independent testing going on to confirm that. And a million dollars to get new GE plant approval is nothing compared to a drug trial that would cost several hundred times that and yet these plants have not only impact on our consumption and health, but they seem to come with a price for environment too.
    Finally, it’s not the universities or small companies that lobby the hardest against any regulation or labeling and it’s not the small companies that hide the most behind patents and trademark protections of their business practices.
    You being a researcher in the field, I wonder what your take is on this.

  8. Boris – I can guarantee that the cost of getting a new GE plant to market is considerably greater than a few million dollars, I believe that the estimate on getting a marketable product from start to finish for Monsanto is in the region of $100M – each product has to go through a minimum of 2 years in a phase 1 project, 2-3 years in a phase 2 project, 2-3 years in a phase 3 project, and then a few years in phase 4 (just like drug research) (approximately 10 years from conception to release is the best timeframe I believe)
    Big Biotech companies dont just release random genes onto the market – the technology has to be proven effective, proven in multiple current germplasms, and proven safe before release. This is another reason why small companies struggle to release commercially viable biotech products – the scale of trials required to prove efficacy of a product is frankly mind boggling (multi-year, multi-location) and without massive resources not exactly easy to do – another reason why small companies (and even big companies) collaborate on getting genes to market (BASF and Monsanto collaborate to take advantage of Monsanto’s capacity to test on a massive scale combined with the increased knowledge base from both companies for example)
    On the impact on consumption, health and environment – all of these are debatable – consumption? Yes, I guess you are essentially ‘forced’ to consume the GE products, but whether this is meaningful or not is up in the air. Health? No evidence of adverse health effects – and the potential for improving health (vistive III soybeans as an example of a soon to be released product(recent submission for regulatory approval in the US)) is certainly there. Environment? Again debatable whether this is positive, negative, or neutral environmentally – all the data so far suggests decreases in environmental impact from the 2 big commercial GE products out there (Insect Resistance and Herbicide Tolerance) combined with the lower land requirement for similar output which preserves as yet unused land (there was an interesting article in science recently which suggested that biodiversity per unit yield in a set geographic area was infact increased if farming was done under intensive conditions with little within field biodiversity due to the massive reduction in biodiversity caused by even low impact farming – the difference being the smaller geographic footprint required for the same yield from the intensive ag) – also going forward water efficient and nitrogen efficient crops offer reduced environmental impacts.
    These impacts you are bringing up need to be defined to be discussed properly – are they based on any evidence or are they just pulled from the general feel that big business has been bad in the past, and GE crops are evil?

  9. Done, done, done, done, and done. (done, done, done, found one, done and done.) Done, done. I have incorporated everyone’s suggestions into a new page listing genetic engineering companies! Feel free to suggest more in the comments on that page, thanks everyone for helping out.
    Evidently the GE landscape is a bit more diverse than it once seemed!

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