Monsanto, a company best known as the unfavorable face of genetically modified organisms and toxic herbicides, has partnered with a Danish biotech company in order to develop "microscopic organisms that help plants grow and resist pests," reports the Wall Street Journal.
In a $300 million deal, Monsanto and Novozymes will partner in research and creation of "helpful microorganisms, such as tiny fungi and bacteria." According to the Wall Street Journal, "Monsanto will get the use of some Novozymes products and take on some of the Danish company’s staff to help with marketing," in a move that "could enable the U.S. agribusiness giant to circumvent some concerns over its genetically modified seeds."
According to Monsanto's chief technology officer, Dr. Robert Fraley, these "non-GMO" products won't require the same regulatory approval process as genetically modified seeds. In particular, Novozymes' specialty is a focus on industrial enzyme production. These are "complex proteins that help create chemical changes."
Microbes are essential for healthy agriculture practices. "About 50 billion microbes live in a typical tablespoon of soil. Agricultural researchers are trying to better understand how those organisms interact with plant roots, to raise plants that can absorb nutrients faster and resist destructive diseases," notes the Journal. And, it's also big business for Monsanto. "About $2.3 billion of microbe products for agriculture were sold world-wide last year, and sales are expected to grow at roughly 14% to 16% a year."
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Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chief executive officer said the collaboration "immediately elevates microbials as the next major platform in agriculture that will elevate yield and productivity beyond the seed itself.”
But Monsanto's specialty is holding patents—be it for seeds or chemical formulas. The patents require farmers to enter into contracts and face very real legal tangles if they use Monsanto's seeds or accidentally find them growing in their fields (as in the case of crop drift). And while the regulatory process may be truncated for the microbes and enzymes, those products will bear the Monsanto exclusivity, which could further ensnare farmers into liability issues.
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