Expert response from Robert T. Fraley
Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Monsanto Company
Monday, 28/09/2015 14:05
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.
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 on ditches, 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.
Spurred by the incredible breakthroughs in recombinant DNA technology in the 1970’s, 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 tests 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.
The introduction of Roundup Ready crops in 1996 changed farming and agricultural science! Farmers quickly recognized the benefits of the new technology and adoption was very rapid (today more than 90 percent 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).
How GMOs are Researched, Developed and Tested
Learn how plant biotechnology works through the scientists who research, develop and test GMO crops at Dupont.