When Ernie Jaworski became the leader of Monsanto's first biotechnology team in 1979, he had no idea that 25 years later farmers would be planting 200 million acres of genetically engineered crops.
For all Jaworski knew, he and his team were embarking on a search that could have led them to a dead-end that would jeopardize their scientific careers and waste millions of dollars of Monsanto's money.
“Could you put corn DNA in a plant and keep it stable? Could a trait that you put in a plant be inherited? All of those were unknowns at the time,” he said. “It took several years of hard work to find out whether we could solve the scientific issues that made all this possible.”
Jaworski and other members of the team had a chance to reminisce about those early days at a recent ceremony at the Jerseyville Agronomy Center near Jerseyville, Ill. The Monsanto facility was the site of the first agricultural biotechnology field trial in June 1987.
The team members — Jaworski, Robert T. Fraley, Robert B. Horsch and Steve Rogers — received the National Medal of Technology for their work in 1999. Jaworski and Rogers are retired, while Fraley is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Monsanto and Horsch is vice president for international development partnerships at the company.
“This was the only place in the country where you could see genetically engineered crops for several years,” said Rogers, referring to the expanse of soybeans behind a metal building where the team members spoke along with representatives of farm groups from the United States, Spain and South Africa.
“The first time we came here to put in the first genetically engineered crop — tomatoes — we had a lot of questions, and we got a lot of questions from neighboring farmers over the next few years,” said Rogers.
“Our work actually started in petunias,” said Horsch, who specialized in tissue culture research for the team. Horsch, Rogers and Fraley were among the first scientists to successfully transfer a resistant gene (kanamycin) into a small portion of a petunia leaf.
“This work revolutionized biology,” he noted. “It's been estimated that an extra 5 billion pounds of food and fiber are being grown today as a result of this research. Something like 82 percent of research papers now involves some form of plant transformation.”
From petunias, the team's research evolved to tomatoes and eventually to corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, wheat and other crops.
Someone with Monsanto took photos of that first field trial being planted at Jerseyville in 1987. Horsch is shown along with Rogers riding on the planter and loading transplants into the feeder tray.
Another photo shows Rogers; Roger Beachy, a scientist with Washington University in St. Louis who worked with Monsanto on the project; Horsch; and Fraley. (Jaworski, who joined Monsanto in 1952 and worked on Lasso and other herbicides before leading the biotech team, retired before the field trials began.)
“Could this new science be applied to agriculture and have any fit? That's what brought this team together,” said Fraley. “That was part of the challenge — to bring a group together to do something no one had ever done.”
From that first trial in 1987, Monsanto's scientists went on to the testing and introduction of genetically engineered crops such as Bollgard cotton in 1995 and Roundup Ready corn and soybeans in 1996. Then came Yieldgard corn and Roundup Ready cotton and alfalfa. The company recently launched its second generation of Bt cotton, Bollgard II, and is planning to introduce its new Roundup Ready Flex cotton in 2006.
Genetically engineered crops are now being planted on between 200 million and 250 million acres of cropland — or about 10 percent of the world's arable land, according to Fraley. But scientists are still in the beginning stages of the new science.
“Where we are today is like being in computers in the 1960s,” he says. “One of the best parts of my job is to see the new products that are in the pipeline. The other exciting part is talking to farmers who are using this technology all over the world.
“I've talked to farmers in India who used to make 15 or 20 sprays before they switched to Bollgard cotton. Now they're making more money, they can buy a house and they can send their kids to college.”
Part of the observance in Jerseyville included remarks by Leon Corzine, president of the National Corn Growers Association; John Long, former president of the American Soybean Association; Jose Manuel Pomar, a farmer from Spain; and Thandiwe Myeni, a farmer from South Africa.
“When we planted our first bag of Roundup Ready soybeans 10 years ago, I told myself this will change the way we farm,” said Long, a cotton, soybean and corn producer from Newberry, S.C. “I had forgotten the word Lasso until today.
“Since 1997, we've grown 100 percent Roundup Ready soybeans, 100 percent Roundup Ready cotton and 96 percent Bt cotton, and we're now 100 percent no-till” Long noted. “Next year I plan to qualify for Level III of the Conservation Security Program. I couldn't do that without no-till, and I couldn't do that without biotech crops.”
“It has been marvelous to see the growth in biotechnology,” said Jaworski. “We had a lot of fun in those early days. Could we have predicted these results? Not in our wildest dreams.”