Thursday, April 24, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Monsanto opens huge new lab in Woodland

Marlin Edwards, Monsanto's chief technical officer for vegetable seeds, explains the seed chip trays given Thursday as gifts to visitors at the grand opening for the new Monsanto research facility in Woodland. At left is Laura McIntosh, who hosts the "Bringing It Home" cooking show; in center is Kathleen Zelman, a registered dietitian from Atlanta, who was among a group of 12 dietitians invited by Monsanto on a food tour. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

WOODLAND — Monsanto Company unveiled a $31 million, state-of-the-art laboratory and office expansion of its vegetable and seed research headquarters Thursday, making Yolo County the home of the world’s largest site dedicated to vegetable seed health research.

Several hundred Monsanto employees and local government officials attended the grand opening ceremony. The facility will employ 250 full-time workers and 150 contract seasonal employees, including UC Davis student interns who scout for issues developing in the field.

Monsanto, whose products are sold in 160 countries, has 4,000 employees worldwide.

“Half the vegetables grown in United States are grown in California,” said Mark Oppenhuizen, Monsanto’s strategy and operations lead for vegetable research and development. “It is important to us to be close to our customers and be able to test new varieties in same climate as our growers.”

Monsanto’s seed health testing group pinpoints desirable traits that will improve grower productivity and quality against drought, viruses, bacteria and funguses, as well as deliver consumers better taste, color, appearance and nutritional quality prior to the marketing of the product.

The 90,000-square-foot facility includes a Monsanto-engineered seed chipper, which allows researchers to take a piece of the seed without harming the embryo. Scientists then use DNA analysis to discover the characteristics of the plant before it is even planted.

Monsanto researchers then attempt to take the unique traits from a donor plant that are favorable and transfer them to the recipient plant through cross pollination.

Unlike a traditional lab where instruments are confined to a particular area, the molecular breeding technology lab has four separate lanes with electric and water supply lines, vacuum, air supply lines overhead and drains along the floor. Monsanto’s current lab is only a quarter of the size of the new lab, allowing the company to expand its research.

Data collected in the laboratory from seed and tissue samples analyzed from greenhouses and fields is sent to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis. Breeders are able to view results and select which plants they would like to continue to propagate or discard in their breeding programs.

Despite the facility’s main focus on conventional breeding techniques of more than 20 kinds of vegetables through cross pollination, the heavily secured ceremony was shadowed by fewer than a dozen protesters along Highway 16 holding a “Shut down Monsanto” sign.

Anthony Harling, an Anti-Monsanto Project member, said he was there to bring awareness to Monsanto’s chemical and bioengineered products that he argues are not yet proven to be safe.

“Their products have a lot of negative side-effects, and they are marketing them as safe,” said Harling, whose uncle has contracted three types of cancer since being exposed to Monsanto’s Agent Orange defoliation chemical while serving in the Vietnam War.

Harling also said the former executives of Monsanto are moving on to the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and the Supreme Court where they allegedly can push Monsanto’s agenda that its products are safe for the environment without adequate testing.

“They are buying their way to the top of our government and saying their products are safe to use when they are really not,” Harling alleged. “A lot of the employees that work here don’t know the impacts of their products.”

Countered Oppenhuizen, “We are part of Monsanto. We recognize that (Monsanto is) not well understood.”

He said the company received an overwhelmingly positive response at its booth from attendees at last weekend’s Woodland Tomato Festival.

“We are concentrated on conventional breeding practices bringing better varieties and nutritional qualities,” Oppenhuizen said. “Many people see us as part of the community here.”

Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain, a local farmer, spoke at Thursday’s ceremony about his experience growing Monsanto products.

“As a Yolo County grower, I’m excited about the dedication of this laboratory and what it means to farmers not only in Yolo County, but throughout California and the world,” Chamberlain said. He grows 500 acres of Monsanto’s Round-up Ready alfalfa.

“Nearly all the fruits and vegetables that we eat begin with a seed,” he continued. “The growers are dependent on the continuous improvement of seed varieties for disease resistance, yield and vigor. The work that Monsanto and other seed companies do in Yolo County is vital in meeting the needs of the growing world population.”

Many of the plants are tested in Guatemala where the climate and growing conditions are prime for growing — seed to seed is very fast, a Monsanto spokeswoman said.

The wide halls of the sleek facility were built to accommodate tour groups, and lab tables were installed with wheels to adapt to the changes of the seed industry and offer the ability to rearrange the lab to accommodate new research projects.

“I am able to walk in fields all across the globe and see what kind of difference these products make on our customers and our consumers,” Oppenhuizen said. “Whether you are in Poland or just down the street in California, there is a tremendous passion about our business. This facility will continue to build upon the great products we have in our pipeline.”

By the end of the ceremony and facility tours, the protesters had left.

“I just want to bring awareness to people out there of what is going on and get them to do their own research,” Harling said. “I want people to realize what is in their back yard.”

Matthew Blackburn

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