Guest Post Part II: The Buzz Behind the Monsanto/Beeolgics Acquisition

This guest post is by Maryam Henein, director of the documentary Vanishing Of  The Bees. Check out her latest venture Honey Colony, which cross pollinates hive and health.

Monsanto & Beeologics Answer Our Questions

As a journalist I strive to be objective. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Monsanto and Beeologics. Here are their answers. I look forward to your feedback.

What exactly is Remebee in layman’s terms?

Eyal Ben-Chanoch, Business Strategy Lead, Beeologics: Remebee® is an anti-viral treatment that is being researched for use in honeybees affected with Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). We currently have the product in regulatory trials with beekeepers across the United States to evaluate its safety and effectiveness.

How do you apply Remebee?

Eyal: In our trials, we are proposing to have the concentrated Remebee solution mixed with heavy sugar syrup and fed to honeybees through normal practices.

Remembee, utilizes RNA interference. What does that mean in layman terms?

Eyal: RNAi is a process that naturally occurs in most living things and is a major contributor to overall cell health. Using a simple analogy, this cell process acts much like a dimmer switch on a light by adjusting the production of the targeted protein.

I heard that Remebee is a broad spectrum inoculation, which is not directed specifically at any particular virus? is this correct?

Eyal: No. Remebee is very specific to IAPV. However, we are already researching the next-generation product, which could potentially protect honeybees from up to seven different viruses.

Remebee is being reviewed for potential commercial sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Is it currently being used? When do you estimate it will be out on the market? And what were the findings so far?

Eyal: Remebee is considered a therapeutic drug for food producing animals, and hence is regulated by the FDA. We are currently using Remebee in clinical trials with about a dozen U.S.-based beekeepers. After these trials, we will submit the data to the FDA for review and hopefully approval. I can’t speculate on how long this process may take, but we hope to share our potential timelines with the industry when we know more.

Do you think Monsanto recognizes the significant role that agricultural chemicals, especially pesticides, have on bee colonies?

Eyal: In the short time I am with the company, I am seeing true and genuine care to the bees and their importance to sustainable agriculture.

Maureen Mazurek, Communication & Stakeholder Lead, Monsanto: One of the key things I’ve heard in my conversations with beekeepers and experts is that there are three things that may be having the greatest impact on bee health: nutrition, pathogens and pesticides. Hopefully, Remebee can help address the pathogen issue, and I think there is a strong possibility we can develop an environmental or outreach program to help address nutrition. From a product perspective, we take a comprehensive approach to establish that our products can be used safely in the environment – including robust ecological risk assessments that consider non-target insects like bees.

All of those studies are reviewed by the EPA and must be found to be scientifically sound before we can ever commercialize a product. (Information about EPA’s ecological risk assessment are available online.) In addition, we are working with other companies, academics and government agencies to figure out how to expand the testing and assessment framework that evaluates the potential effects of crop protection products on honeybees and native pollinators.

Why was Monsanto interested in Beelogics? Why did you decide to go with Monsanto?

Maureen: Beeologics’ mission of providing biological tools – including pest and disease applications – fits very well with Monsanto’s commitment to sustainable agriculture – of helping farmers to produce more while conserving more natural resources. We believe there is an opportunity in the work being done here that can have potentially broad and promising applications for agriculture in the future.

Eyal: Indeed, Beelogics have created relationships with several companies in the industry that support agriculture. Monsanto and Beeologics share very similar visions for the utilization of the technology and the importance of bees to sustainable agriculture – a fact that helps bring the companies closer than others. I find it gratifying to think our research may be tapped for broader use in agriculture, potentially helping farmers around the world. And I can tell you this is a tremendous boost for our work and – as a result – to the bee cause. With Monsanto’s resources behind us, we are now in a better position to complete the development and regulation work and bring Remebee and the rest of the product line to the hands of the beekeeping community.

What happens if they take the technology and use it negatively?

Eyal: An old Dutch proverb says “tall trees catch much wind.” I guess that if a smaller and less successful company was to acquire Beeologics this question would not be asked. There is no doubt in my mind that Beeologics’ work supporting the bee industry will continue. Over the past few months, I’ve had the chance to work with and get to know many of my colleagues at Monsanto; some of them fairly well. I believe that the leadership team and scientists recognize the importance of bees to sustainable agriculture and their intent to bring Beeologics’ research results to the global bee community is genuine. The team has shown real interest working with us and bee industry leaders in advancing bee health and in guiding the development of our products.

“Biological products will continue to play an increasingly important role in supporting the sustainability of many agricultural systems. Both companies expect that their combined research could provide farmers with novel approaches to the challenges they face.”

What does this mean exactly when Monsanto doesn’t allow farmers to keep their own seeds? We’re living with an agricultural system that does not support crop rotation and depletes the soil and insects with it’s poisons? How is this sustainable?

Maureen: This is a lengthy question, and I’ll need to try to break this down a bit. First, the only business Monsanto is involved in is agriculture. And, we know that farmers need to get more from every acre of land, every drop of water and every unit of energy – today and tomorrow – to meet increasing food and fiber needs on existing farmland.

Much like beekeepers, farmers want the ability to make decisions about what they do in their operations – and we strongly support that choice. Yet that might mean – as you suggest – that some farmers will choose not to rotate their crops or some might adopt practices that deplete the soil.

However, our opportunity, and really our mission, is to support sustainable agricultural systems by providing farmers with more choices – with better tools and novel approaches that help them produce more while conserving more natural resources. In fact, three years ago in 2008, we specifically set a series of goals for ourselves to make agriculture more sustainable. For example, we committed to developing products that help lessen habitat loss, improve water quality, and increase yields with one-third fewer key resources per unit of output. And, I’m proud to say we are already making good progress against these goals.(Monsanto’s 2010 Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Report)

Second, I want to address your question about saved seed. Farmers have lots of options when they buy seed. Some varieties allow them to save the seed, and even propagate and sell it to other farmers. Some varieties are protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act and can be saved, but never repackaged and sold to others. And, some varieties, like the ones you’re referring to, contain patented traits. Farmers who purchase those varieties know in advance and agree that they will not save or re-plant the seed. Farmers are very smart about choosing the varieties that are best for their farms and their bottom lines – it is a decision they must address every year. For many, they are willing to pay for new seed each year because the benefits they receive from the seed justify the cost.

We all make mistakes and part of being mature is being able to admit and take responsibility. Does Monsanto take responsibility for any wrong doing on people or the planet?

Maureen: I agree that we all make mistakes, and I understand that there are people who may not have a lot of trust or faith in us to do the right thing. But I can tell you, I’ve worked here for more than 20 years, and the people I work with are good people who believe the work we are doing really does make a valuable difference in the world. We have committed – not only to help farmers produce more food or be more profitable, but – to have a positive impact on the environment and in increasing the sustainability of agriculture. I’d ask people to look at our pledge and at our sustainability report to see what we are really about. (Monsanto’s Pledge) (Monsanto’s 2010 Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Report)

Do you intend to patent the bee genome?

Maureen: No.

Eyal: This is an odd question as the bee genome was unveiled by a consortium of large group of scientists and published and made headways in Science magazine in 2006. It was an effort that took place without our involvement and before Beeologics was founded. To the best of my knowledge, the bee genome is publically available to all scientists.

What controlled studies have been done to evaluate the effects of crops with the BT gene on beneficial insects and what their role in these studies has been?

Maureen: Actually, crops with the Bt gene are very favorable to beneficial insects, because the trait is highly specific against targeted pests. In fact, we hear from growers that beneficial insects including native pollinators are on the rise in fields with Bt crops. For each Bt trait though, we have conducted a battery of studies on beneficial insects including honey bees. Results from our lab studies found that these crops did not negatively affect the survival of honey bee larvae or honey bee adults. Perhaps the best reference to look at is a combined analysis of honey bee studies that was published in the journal PLoS ONE a few years ago (A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Crops on Honey Bees), or one that was just published in December also in PLoS ONE (Testing Pollen of Single and Stacked Insect-Resistant Bt-Maize on In vitro Reared Honey Bee Larvae).

Are you working on honey bee genetics trying to create resistant and or hygienic queens? If this is the case and a hive swarms and creates a new queen will the drones be sued for mating? But seriously are you trying to hybridize queens?

Maureen: No.

Eyal: No, we do not have any breeding or queen development program. Efforts in these areas are made in made universities without much success.

How does Monsanto feel about all the negative publicity they get?

Maureen: Obviously, I’m disappointed anytime I read a blatantly negative story – especially those that are unbalanced or that perpetuate myths with disregard for the facts. That is certainly a challenge that we have with social media and Internet. However, I wouldn’t work here if I wasn’t committed to the work that we do, so I can’t be thin skinned. I hope to be engaging in more conversations with people in the bee industry though, and I welcome questions about the things people read and hear, whether they are positive or negative. I suspect through those conversations I will learn a lot that I can take back to Monsanto to make us a better company, while sharing some information that might provide a different view.

Eyal: I am sure that nobody likes to be painted negatively. I am a consumer of the same media that paints the picture, and before I saw with my own eyes the work done in the company, without any ration reason I had a negative outlook. This perspective has been totally inverted once I learned the facts and judged for myself instead of through the lenses of others.

Read Part 1

Maryam Henein has more than fifteen years’ experience working as an investigative journalist, a documentary and television producer and professional researcher. Her credits include producing documentaries for the BBC, Discovery, Robert Greenwald and Morgan Spurlock. As a journalist she has written for publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Science & Spirit Magazine, and The Cairo Times. The former Montrealer gained notoriety by breaking a story about Dodi Fayed’s imposter, who duped hundreds across North America and set a precedent in Canadian legal history. Working in front of the camera, Maryam co-wrote and hosted a program for TLC about the Ark of the Covenant. Following a near death experience several years ago, Maryam delved into the science of nutrition and alternative ways of healing. She also became more conscious about the environment and went on to produce a piece on the Exxon Valdez Oil spill for Robert Greenwald and The Sierra Club. She has worked developing numerous documentaries on topics ranging from Creationism to Family Annihilators. Her curiosity and tenacity energizes her work as a documentarian. Her latest venture is www.HoneyColony.com

Maryam Henein – Writer/Filmmaker/All-around Raconteur Vanishing Of The Bees Follow me: | |
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