Monsanto Reports Lower Profits But Acquires New Technology in Shift Away From Current GMO Methods
By Baran Hines
Monsanto Company announced its fourth quarter and fiscal year 2016 earnings on Wednesday, with mixed results showing the company is under pressure.
The St. Louis-based seed and chemical company’s net loss for the fourth quarter was $191 million, which is smaller than last year’s fourth quarter loss of $495 million.
“Net income attributable to Monsanto for fiscal year 2016 was approximately $1.3 billion compared to net income of $2.3 billion attributable to Monsanto in fiscal year 2015,” the company reported in a statement on its website.
Pressure on Monsanto continues as opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) has remained consistent, and Monsanto has been seeking alternative gene editing technologies to offset the negative perception of GMO crops. Wall Street analysts seemed pleased with the earnings report which beat the average estimates as the company has prepared investors for the ongoing issues related to pricing and other regional problems.
The global seed and chemicals industry is also facing continued difficulty as a result of the sagging global economy’s effect on commodity prices. The effects of this trend over multiple years has led to the proposed consolidation of major firms. In addition to the Bayer-Monsanto deal which would create the biggest company in the industry, China National Chemical Corp.’s plans to acquire Swiss pesticide maker Syngenta AG while DuPont Co. and Dow Chemical Co. plan to merge and then create a new seed science division.
Monsanto also reported that the company’s total operating expenses were basically flat year-over-year compared to 2015. The company has spent billions to restructure its operations in recent years to respond to a number of difficulties, but this year’s report may signal that the company has found a working strategy to maintain its position as global leader while it prepares for the next advancement in technology.
The unknown long-term effects on the environment, human health, and farm animals have been the major concerns about GMO crops and Monsanto is attempting to change this perception of the company’s products with new technology. Monsanto announced on September 22 that it acquired a global, non-exclusive licensing agreement from the Broad Institute for agricultural applications of CRISPR genome editing technology. The Broad Institute works in partnership with Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has shared its techniques with mostly academic and non-profit groups, but has limited licenses for commercial research. The non-exclusive agreement with Monsanto is the first time that the Broad Institute has issued a license for agricultural use.
The primary reason the Broad Institute has limited the use of CRISPR technology is because even though it is known to be very precise, many experts in the field have concluded that the technology can be potentially dangerous. CRISPR is considered to be more accurate for achieving specific genetic modifications by using targeted enzymes and small units of the desired genetic strands to replace traits in the primary organism; however, the side effects are not as easily controlled. Many of the same concerns about current GMO crop technology are the same for CRISPR as it relates to agriculture, primarily the transfer of genetic material to other species with unknown effects. CRISPR differs from current GMO technology in that it targets specific sites while GMOs are produced by injecting specific genes from other organisms at random sites in the host crop’s genome.
The Broad Institute has licensed CRISPR for mostly academic research in medical fields but limited other usage because the potential for abusing the technology very high since CRISPR’s method of genetic engineering is so dominant. By combining the CRISPR methods with another known technique called “gene drive,” a harmful genetic trait could spread faster than it could be controlled and take over an entire species in fewer generations before the problem is discovered.
The Broad Institute has specifically limited Monsanto from using gene drive in combination with the CRISPR methods as part of the licensing agreement. The limitations also prohibit Monsanto from creating sterile Terminator seeds, which would force farmers to continue to buy seeds instead of using those produced by the plant.
Even before experiments were done proving how dominant the techniques could be, some of the scientists who studied CRISPR gene drives on a theoretical basis cautioned against widespread use because of unknown effects. The most vocal of the scientists was Harvard Biologist Kevin Esvelt of the Wyss Institute, who organized a pledge to use caution in experimentation, which was signed by 27 of the researchers at the only two labs to study it in the early stages. Esvelt and others specifically worried about the escape of organisms carrying engineered genes because of the potential for taking over in the natural environment.
Gene drive is a technique that almost guarantees a gene will be inherited by offspring and in subsequent generations because it destroys competitors of that gene during the cutting and replication process. The result is that even if the genetically engineered organism is paired with a partner carrying a different version of the gene, their descendants will carry the engineered gene and express the associated trait.
Harvard’s Kevin Esvelt described the power of CRISPR gene drives by saying that earlier technologies would require adding genes into each and every egg or embryo in order to make an individual organism carry it and repeat that as the original carriers died or failed to pass the trait to their descendants. Esvelt noted that with gene drive, it only has to be done a few times, depending on how quickly a species reproduces. Esvelt further described this by saying that using gene drive to engineer a single mosquito out of 10,000 could cause 100 percent of them to carry the new trait within just 16 generations, over the course of a few months.
CRISPR has also been seen as a bioterrorism threat and has been studied by the National Academy of Sciences, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pentagon, and the United Nations’ bioweapons office, according to a report by STAT News.
Monsanto also announced Monday that it reached a non-exclusive global licensing agreement on Dow AgroSciences’ EXZACT™ Precision Technology® Platform for research and commercial development of new crop varieties. “Zinc finger nucleases are a well-established technology for gene editing,” a statement claims on the Monsanto website. The licensing of EXZACT technology has been seen as a backup effort to its use of CRISPR.
The new technology announcements come during an election season where an issue like genetically modified organisms goes unnoticed among other discussions. CRISPR has the potential to fall through the cracks of the regulatory agencies because it is fundamentally different from existing GMO technology, as noted by the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. Congress also recently passed a bill which prevents states from requiring clear labeling for foods containing GMO-derived ingredients.
The article, "Monsanto Reports Lower Profits But Acquires New Technology in Shift Away From Current GMO Methods", was syndicated from and first appeared at: http://www.activistpost.com/2016/10/monsanto-profits-new-tech-crispr-gmo.html.
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