Malia McPherson, SLS class of 2016
Big things are happening in St. Louis, Missouri, home to controversial, agriculture giant Monsanto. This year, the last Monsanto-owned patent for their blockbuster Roundup Ready® trait in soybeans is set to expire. The last applicable third-party patent for the trait will also expire in early 2015. While the effects of this legal change are speculative at best, farmers are looking forward to cheaper “generic” GMO soybeans and a return to seed-saving (the traditional way to replant crops rather than re-buying seed each year as required in Monsanto contracts). Farmers that export these crops, however, have only until 2021 to switch to Genuity® Roundup Ready 2 Yield® seeds, when Monsanto will no longer support the regulatory packages required for international sale (explained here).
While the Supreme Court upheld the enforcement of these patents last year in Monsanto Co. v. Vernon Bowman, public backlash against their products and environmental impact may be pushing Monsanto into a new field (no pun intended). In December, the company announced the start to a long-term strategic partnership with Danish company Novozymes, creating “The BigAg Alliance” aimed at microbial discovery and innovation. The press release, along with this nice chart, suggests that the alliance will work towards research, development, and commercial capabilities to create sustainable biological solutions in agriculture. It is an interesting move for Monsanto and perhaps an optimistic use of the word “sustainable.” But this venture brings to mind many questions about the way in which these two companies aim to innovate and profit from microbes.
Why switch to agricultural biologicals?
As both world population and environmental concerns increase, industrial agriculture must find ways to boost food production, decrease pesticide and water consumption, and enhance regional crop variety. While microbes are already found naturally in soils and plants themselves, there is tremendous potential for more sustainable production methods with microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, virus, or even protozoans). Although the BioAg announcement is vague about specific future plans, traditional natural sources might be through mycorrhizal fungus (root-fungus), bacteria that enhance nod factors (see below), or even the crop rotation techniques that introduce additional microbes for nitrogen fixing.
|Symbiotically associated fungus that attaches to plant roots, increasing the surface area for water and nutrient uptake.||Reduces water needs of plants by 25% and often make plants more resistant to diseases, especially those from soil-borne pathogens.|
Nitrogen fixing bacteria or archae (i.e. Rhizobia)
|Rhizobia have symbiotic relationship with legumes, producing nod-factors that induce plant nodulation||Helps with growth promotion (increase nitrogen fixation, enhance other beneficial bacteria or fungi, can control infections)|
What does Novozymes do? What do they patent?
Novozymes has a broad portfolio of products that already capitalize on many natural microbial mechanisms. JumpStart® coats corn and wheat seeds with a fungus aimed at phosphate optimization and also contains the bacterium penicillium bilaii. Revv™ “triggers” fungi (mychorrizae) in the soil of cotton plants. As 2014 has the potential to be a big year for soybean (legume) change, Novozymes soybean products such as Optimize® could become a bigger part of overall soybean farming.
Optimize is a combination of nitrogen inoculants and patented “LCO (Lipo-chitooligosaccharide) Promoter Technology.” In nature, leguminous (i.e. soybeans) plants release flavonoids, which bind to soil rhizobia (bacteria), turning on genes for LCO production. These nod-factors (LCO’s) are released by the bacteria into the soil, bind to the roots of the plants, and initiate a cascade of plant gene expression that stimulates formation of nitrogen-fixing nodule structures on legume roots. Alternatively, modified and synthetic LCO molecules can be produced through genetic engineering or chemical synthesis. Synthetic LCO’s of the same molecular structure interact with plants and stimulate nodulation in the same way as naturally produced molecules.
[Simple take-away: LCO’s exist in nature from Rhizobacteria, but can be produced outside of the soil with non-symbiotic bacteria or synthetically, and introduced into soils to help soybean growth and potentially replace chemical fertilizers, pesticides and supplements.]
Novozymes has broad claims on compositions of LCO and chitinous compounds (found in the cell wall of fungi and can enhance the protection against plant pathogens) that enhance plant growth or crop yield (see below). The LCO’s can be produced from bacterium, chemical synthesis, or genetically modified, applied to either seeds or plants, in both legumes or non-legumes plant categories. Essentially, it seems Novozymes and Monsanto could team up to perfect genetic modifications in these products or increase widespread use of microbes through Monsanto’s distribution/production capabilities. If these techniques and patents are highly enforced in the future, it is not hard to imagine push back from farmers already independently using similar techniques.
Claim 1: A composition for enhancing plant growth or crop yield comprising at least one lipo-chitooligosaccharide and one or more chitinous compounds selected from the group consisting of chitins and chitosans.
Claim 4: The composition of claim 1, wherein the lipo-chitooligosaccharide is produced, at least in part, by a genetically modified cell or organism.
Claim 17: A method for enhancing plant growth or crop yield comprising administering to a plant or seed the composition of claim 1 in an effective amount for enhancing foliar plant growth or crop yield.
Claim 22: The method of claim 17, wherein the plant or seed is a legume.
Should this shift really placate non-GMO activists or Monsanto critics?
Currently, the products Novozymes sells do not directly contain any GMOs as their active ingredients. Although the BioAg Alliance may just be looking to size up Novozymes production, rather than shift towards the commercialization of GMO microbes, it presents interesting hypotheticals. Could plants that are not genetically modified, but treated with considerable amounts of genetically modified organisms such as GMO bacteria and fungus, be considered GMO free? Can plants that are treated with by-products of GMO microbes, but that are not tested for genetic fidelity, be considered GMO free? These are questions that the anti-GMO block might soon have to tackle—they will need to consider whether the increased environmental benefit of such techniques could outweigh their negative feelings toward GMO agriculture.
Additionally, according to this 2012 American Society of Microbiology report, there are many future challenges to understanding “healthy soils” and the microbe world. The “vast diversity of microbes” alone is daunting. Capturing fungi, bacteria, and other soil components interactions in simple commercial products may require additional research and new metrics to better track microbe activity/benefits. While there is great potential, anti-GMO activists might currently find more support against the unknown effects of microbe introduction than they do in current GMO-plant debates.
Finally, by shifting the technique and therefore language to “natural substitutes,” Monsanto avoids conversations about the potential benefits of plant GMOs—genetic changes in plants that would reduce the need for pesticides (i.e. Rainbow Papaya), instead of Roundup Ready products. It is very exciting that Monsanto is looking to develop sustainable options, but Monsanto could be forthright that the products the BioAg Alliance develops include steps that are “natural” in a similar sense that their Roundup Ready seeds are “natural”— through genetic modification and patented discoveries. For Monsanto to try and enhance their image using complicated agricultural technology and vague details about microbial innovation shows that despite any projected change, Monsanto (for better or worse) will be sticking to their same marketing strategy.
Malia McPherson is a first year JD student at Stanford Law School and Speaker Liaison for Stanford BioLaw