Interview with Roger Beachy, Obama's pick to head the Natl Inst of Food & Ag
Plant scientist Roger Beachy has joined the Obama administration to lead the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the new research funding arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Beachy, whose research led to the first transgenic crop, was previously the long-time head of the not-for-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Emily Waltz talks to Beachy about his plans for the new agency.
Do you think that the financial support from Monsanto at the Donald Danforth Plant ScienceCenter will affect how you form relationships with industry at NIFA?
No. As president of the Danforth Center I encouraged relationships with private companies, including Monsanto. But it should be understood that those relationships did not result in significant influences over the mission of the Center. It's unfortunate that some people think that that relationship has tainted me in some way, although I guess it's not unexpected.
Why do we see such an emphasis on transgenic strains of major crops rather than other crops that would benefit small-scale farmers and consumers?
There is relatively little profit in minor crops like blueberries and sweet potatoes compared with the large commodity crops. So the major seed companies aren't very interested in developing them; that is left to the public sector and small seed companies. And while public sector science is putting a lot of effort into researching these smaller crops, the cost of navigating the regulatory process is so high that it essentially eliminates public sector participation in commercialization. Noncommercial researchers also lack the expertise and infrastructure to provide regulatory authorities with the necessary documentation for regulatory approval. Without additional support, there will likely be few genetically enhanced crops developed by public sector researchers in the marketplace in the near future.
Will NIFA fund research that examines the potential risks of biotech crops?
We've had more than 15 years of successful deployment of biotech crops. That history alone tells us a lot about how safe transgenes are under current regulatory guidelines. I think it's important that we stop talking only about risks and talk more about risk-benefit analyses.