GMOs and biotechnology are among the most asked about topics on watchusgrow.org. Recently, a group of IFF City Moms, who have toured Illinois farms and wanted to ask additional questions about Monsanto, were given the opportunity to visit their Biotechnology Research Center. The tour was provided by IFF, with additional support from the Illinois Corn Marketing Board.
In April, I joined a group of about 20 Chicago-area moms on a trip to Monsanto’s Chesterfield Research Center and World Headquarters in St. Louis, MO. We were invited by Illinois Farm Families (IFF) as alumnae of the City Mom (formerly Field Mom) program. When I was a City Mom, in 2014, my top food issue to learn more about was GMOs. IFF gave me all the resources I have needed to learn the facts from credible sources like university and government websites. This trip to Monsanto was an opportunity I couldn't refuse. It was an opportunity to learn what biotechnology is, to see what it looks like first-hand, and to hear directly from scientists and other people doing the work and be able to ask them questions.
There was so much that we got out of this visit; I can't share everything in one post. So, in this post I will share my perception of the place where biology and technology come together at Monsanto. When we read about biotechnology, we read about how it combines biology and high-tech, but we don't really get an image of that high-tech stuff. What is it, anyway? I was hoping to find out on this tour.
We landed in St. Louis and, coming from Chicago O’Hare, we knew immediately we were in a different place. The airport was quiet and we seemed to be the only ones there at 10 AM on a Saturday morning. The group of us, which also included two farm moms from the Illinois Farm Families, met our Monsanto leader, Janice Person, and boarded a bus for a short ride to the Monsanto center. When we left Chicago, the leaves on trees had not popped open yet, and when we arrived in St. Louis, we found everything was green and in full bloom. The campus was nicely landscaped with small trees and spring flowers. It was a peaceful walk between buildings.
When we arrived at Monsanto, our bus went through a security gate and drove along a curving entry drive. As we looked out the windows, we were impressed by the large brick buildings off in the distance with giant green houses up on top. It brought a new meaning to the term roof garden. I wondered to myself if we would have an opportunity to go see those, I hoped so. We wound around some buildings and stopped in front of a building with a formal entry titled, Monsanto Research Center. We were at the visitor’s building and we learned that Monsanto offers tours to the public, similar to the one we were on, Monday through Friday.
One thing I wondered was, if this is open to the public, is what we are going to see the actual stuff that happens here or at least a representation of it? It seems unusual to me that a company would give tours to the public. The reality is that biotechnology with regard to food has suffered from consumer opinion and misinformation. One thing they can do is let the consumer inside to see for themselves what is going on.
I believe what we saw on our tour was at least a representation, perhaps more in some cases. I felt that the things we saw were generally how they do what they do at this place. It was all very much "hard wired." There may not have been critical work going on in the spaces we were taken into (that is my assumption, at least), but that's okay with me. If that's true, the spaces were representative of the spaces where real work is being done.
I was surprised by what I saw. For whatever reason, I expected high-tech to be synonymous with a state-of-the-art, high gloss, flashy place like Silicon Valley that is depicted in magazines. Instead, I saw a lab building, which is a working facility, with a mix of low-tech, hands-on science equipment as well as equipment that is probably considered by some to be high-tech, but appears banal. It was very clean and the floors were polished, but it wasn't the high design of Silicon Valley - a very different kind of high-tech. There were computers in some rooms and most spaces were climate-controlled for the plants, most likely controlled by computers located remotely. It was a building specifically designed to grow plants in controlled environments, growth chambers and greenhouses, then study them in labs. The growth chambers appeared to be self-contained units (not unlike a walk-in freezer) installed one after the next in a line down a corridor. They are impressive on their own, then to know that there are so many is fascinating. To be sure, the mechanical engineers who design this type of building have quite a task coordinating all of the mechanical and electrical requirements.
I learned the campus was built about twenty years ago and while we walked through the building called the visitor’s center which had a few flashy interactive kiosks for us to read while we waited, our tour was in one of those brick buildings with the greenhouses up on top - a lab building.
My overall impression of the lab building (we walked one floor, inside a couple of roof greenhouses, and a little more) is that they are very practical for the purpose of providing what plant breeders (scientists) need in order to do their work and not much more. I was expecting that flashy and state-of-the-art facility. The one we visited simply is not flashy. Floors are VCT tile, there are no ceiling tiles in the corridors because mechanical ducts and electrical trays take up too much space. Everything visible is a necessary piece of equipment to make the labs function. If I had to describe the feeling I had as I walked through, it would be "clinical." If we were there on a Monday through Friday, I could imagine people in white lab coats quietly walking the corridors. Incidentally, on this Saturday morning, we didn't see anyone working.
The floor plan of the lab building we were in was posted on the wall where we were walking. We were told there are 124 growth chambers in that building. A growth chamber is a very small room, maybe 8 ft x 10 ft at the most, that is sealed off and completely climate controlled – air temperature, humidity, and lighting are set to a particular place on the planet. The one we stepped into was growing soybeans for a location in Brazil. Even the soil in the pots replicates the soil conditions at that location being studied. As we stood there, with the door wide open, letting all of the hot/humid air out, I thought to myself, this particular experiment must not be too critical; otherwise it wouldn't be on the tour. This is why I felt our tour was a representation. A public tour of actual working experiments would be too disrupting to the work of the scientists. With that said, I believe we saw a fair representation of the facility and work that is actually done.
Other than growth chambers at the interior of the floor plan, the only other rooms on this floor are laboratories, mainly at the perimeter. The laboratory is essentially the plant breeder's (scientist's) work room. We walked by one that had a typical lab table, lots of storage space, and low-tech equipment and tools for their work, like a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer for mixing soils, measuring cups and colored masking tape.
The greenhouses on the roof, of course, depend on the natural light of St. Louis, but there was supplementary LED lighting, as well. We saw mainly corn stalks growing here. Another greenhouse that we went into was mostly empty, except a few corn stalks, but it had some sugar cane stalks growing and also a cotton plant. The cotton plant was interesting. It was sitting on a table next to an ornamental pepper. We learned that the ornamental pepper had been brought in to host the pirate beetle, which will eat undesirable/damaging insects on the cotton.
The highlight, for me, in the greenhouse, was seeing the plant that biologists consider to be the first corn plant, teosinte. I will save what we learned about plant breeding for another blog post.
Overall, my impression of "the place" is that it is where a lot of very bright people go to work every day to breed, care for, and study plants (mostly corn and soybeans). It was impressive and fascinating; however, it is, quite simply, very hands-on work, a lot of which is still low-tech. Even though computers are used to control environments, rapidly analyze data or research databases, largely what I saw was a workplace that requires human hands to pollinate, make observations and adjustments, and record results. Those human hands are connected to some very bright people - the scientists who we met on our tour. I'll share more about those people in another blog post, as well.
Travel expenses within St. Louis and lunch courtesy of Monsanto.
Oak Park, IL
Heather is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers. (City Moms formerly known as Field Moms.)