Expert response from Robert T. Fraley
Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto Company
Monday, 28/09/2015 14:05
Thank you for your question. My response will cover the history of Roundup and some interesting information about Roundup Ready crops and how they relate to GMO.
Firstly, what is Roundup Ready and what are Roundup Ready crops? Roundup Ready is a trademark name for a patented line of genetically modified crop seeds that are resistant to the glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup. These crops are called ‘Roundup Ready crops’.
So, who invented Roundup?
Glyphosate, the active agent in Roundup, was first discovered to be an herbicide in 1970 by Monsanto chemist, John Franz. At that time in the ag industry, most herbicides were pre-emergent, meaning they were applied before the crop and weeds emerged. The post-emergent activity of glyphosate in controlling a large number of broadleaf and grass weeds was very different, which when combined with its exceptional environmental (soil inactivation, rapid degradation, no carryover, etc) and toxicological properties (extremely low toxicity to mammals and beneficial organisms), made it a breakthrough product.
When was Roundup introduced?
Roundup® was introduced into the market in 1974 as a broad-spectrum herbicide and quickly became one of the world’s leading agricultural chemicals. It was initially used in ditches, on railroads and sprayed on fields between growing seasons. This allowed farmers to control grass and broadleaf weeds that emerged from the soil, thus decreasing the need for tillage, preserving soil structure and reducing soil erosion.
Next came the case of Roundup Ready GMOs.
Spurred by the incredible breakthroughs in recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s, Monsanto scientists recognized the many benefits to farmers if Roundup® could be applied directly to growing crops to control weeds within their fields. A small team of scientists (Rob Horsch, Steve Rogers and myself) led by Dr Ernie Jaworski, began working on this challenge. By the early 1980s, this team had developed the first systems to introduce specific genes into plants and our attention shifted to developing virus-resistant, insect resistant and Roundup-tolerant crops.
It was known that glyphosate likely inhibited the biochemical pathway in plants that produced aromatic amino acids (animals and people don’t have this pathway which explains Roundup’s high level of mammalian safety) and also that glyphosate was broken down very rapidly in the soil by microorganisms. By the mid-1980s, our researchers had identified both plant and microbial genes that conferred increased herbicide tolerance in laboratory tests and in 1987 the USDA approved the first field test of Roundup Ready plants. This was a Roundup resistant crop of genetically modified tomato plants that were tolerant to Roundup. A few years later, the bacterial gene that would become the Roundup Ready trait was discovered, isolated and introduced into crops.
Let’s take a look at soybeans as an example, by answering the questions, what are Roundup Ready soybeans and how are Roundup Ready soybeans made? Roundup Ready Soybeans are genetically engineered soybeans that have had their DNA altered so that they can withstand the herbicide glyphosate which is the active ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup. These soybeans are tolerant to glyphosate because each soybean seed has had the Roundup Ready gene injected into it before it is planted. This means that farmers can spray their fields with the herbicide to remove weeds without killing their crop.
As you can see, the introduction of Roundup Ready crops in 1996 changed farming and agricultural science! Farmers quickly recognized the benefits of Roundup resistance and adoption was very rapid (today more than 90% of the U.S. soybean, corn, cotton and canola acres utilize a biotech trait for herbicide tolerance). In addition to simplifying and improving weed management systems which increased crop yields, Roundup Ready crops reduced tillage and reduced equipment costs and allowed for easier harvests due to “cleaner fields” with fewer weeds. A major environmental benefit has been the increased adoption of conservation tillage: by reducing plowing, farmers reduced energy consumption and GHG emissions while preserving soil structure and reducing erosion. In 2013, this was equivalent to removing 28 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 12.4 million cars from the road for one year (Source: PG Economics).
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