Monsanto MON (NYSE) describes itself as “a sustainable agriculture company..deliver(ing) agricultural products that support farmers all around the world.” Their focus is “on empowering farmers—large and small—to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy.”
So how is this forward-thinking agriculture company investing in the future and are these investments a signal toward the future of the agricultural industry and it’s link to human health? We think so.
According to a recent Bloomberg interview with John Hamer, Managing Director for Monsanto’s Growth Ventures, Monsanto is investing venture capital (VC) in three areas “that will help growers better understand how they can be better at producing food.” Those areas include:
- Data science and computing. This includes wireless networks and mobile computing platforms that deliver timely data directly to farmers.
- Microbioms. Like humans, plants are covered with bacteria. This bacteria helps plants grow and withstand stress. VC is being invested in companies researching these plant bacteria learning how they help plants grow. This is similar to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s Human Microbiome Project (HMP) that is designed “to characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health.”
- Innovations in Genetics. This area has been Monsanto’s “bread-n-butter” for many years and it continues — only at a much faster pace! And, this is a good thing as these innovations help crops grow faster and more precisely. A needed requirement as we prepare for world population growth from the current 7 billion to 9 billion by 2044.
Food and Health: Improving the Synonymous Relationship
“We are what we eat!” This adage has been around for decades and is generally true as the nutrients in food we eat help sustain the 37.2 trillion tiny cells throughout our bodies.
But, as we mentioned in our April 2012 blogpost, “there has been an ongoing revolution occurring in the practice of healthcare that will bring about multiple dimensions of change. P4 Medicine (Predictive, Preventive, Personalized and Participatory) is emerging to replace the passive patient servicing where physicians waited for symptoms to develop then offered treatment.”
Over the past decade personalized medicine has become widely accepted within the healthcare industry and by the general public. More than ever before, an individual’s genomes (derived from RNA nucleic acid and proteins from all living cells) now guide health care providers in making medical decisions for the respective patient.
Congress wisely noticed the technology revolution occurring in healthcare practices and, in a bipartisan fashion, enacted the 21st Century Cures Act (Cures Act, P.L. 114-255) in December 2016. The Cures Act funds the NIH’s Human Genome Project that will advance personalized medicine and is assured to be the most important health related research and technology achievement in a generation.
More recently, Congress has been debating the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). Personalized medicine’s role in this debate is profound as it provides two principle goals lawmakers want to achieve: 1. improved personalized care and 2. lesser costs. The Personalized Medicine Coalition recently released a report, The Personalized Medicine Report: Opportunity, Challenges, and the Future, that documents such improved health at reduced costs.
Agriculture’s Tightening Bond With Personalized Health
Investing their VC money in microbiomes that are connected to similar NIH projects, along with technologies that transfer data almost instantly, Monsanto is again providing leadership in the agriculture industry’s ability to continue keeping up with advancements in human health.
As we mentioned in our January 31 blogpost, in the past few years the agriculture and food industry has been engaged in the debate on “food labeling policy changes….(that) has led to the question of whether or not food labeling policy discussions will be ongoing in the future? The answer is, likely “yes.” That’s because “It is understood that to some extent consumers want transparency about the foods they eat.”
The food labeling policy debate also includes the recent passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act (PL 114-261) in July 2016 that establishes a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard. The US Department of Agriculture has until July 2018 to implement the law.
Another point we mention in the blogpost is it “should be recognized that technology is playing a role in keeping labeling costs at a minimum. Most consumers have a smartphone and can easily scan a QR code, or bar code, and obtain immediate access to information on the food product including nutrition, bioengineering, traceability and production practices. But keep in mind that there are also costs in managing data linked to the QR code, or bar code.”
In response to agency regulations and laws enacted last year, food and beverage companies are preparing to spend billions of dollars to change their food labels for nutrition and the presence of bioengineered material. Previous food labeling policy discussions centered on country-of-origin labeling, organic labeling, and menu labeling. More recently, food labeling policy discussions have begun on how to address an estimated $162 billion in food waste each year in the U.S. Thus, in the very near future we may be asking food companies again to change their “best if used by” label.
The House Committee on Agriculture is also leading the agriculture industry to continue keeping up with medical advancements. To date the Committee and/or Subcommittees have held at least 13 hearings on the next (2018) reauthorization of the five-year Farm Bill. The Farm Bill touches nearly every person in America in some way. From food safety, to crop insurance, to SNAP benefits, to retail pricing and labeling of products, the Farm Bill connects to everyone. The Farm Bill has multiple titles that not only impact food on your table and clothing in your closet, but multiple cross sector industries including commodities, specialty crops, nutrition and health, renewable energy, conservation, international trade and food aid, credit, rural development, transportation and agricultural research.
During a March 16 hearing conducted by the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research that focused on Agricultural Research key witnesses concurred that the agriculture industry should continue keeping pace with the technology revolution occurring in healthcare practices. For instance, Dr. James Carrington, President, Danforth Center, St. Louis, MO told panel members, “Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI) should be on par with programs in agencies, like NIH, that fund fundamental, competitive research in support of other national priorities.”
Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean, College of Agriculture, Purdue University, testified saying, “Looking forward, agriculture still faces a fundamental question – how to feed a growing world? But, that question has become much more complex in the new century….Some consumers have demonstrated much deeper interest in how and where food is produced, and societal acceptance of new technology cannot be taken for granted. Obesity is a global public health issue and not just for high income countries…The science of 21st Century agriculture will be about precision: precise editing of genes to drive plant improvement, precise use of inputs to give plants and animals exactly what they need, precise management of resources to mitigate environmental impacts. This precision will be built on data collected in ways and volumes unprecedented in our history. The word ‘convergence” will characterize agricultural technology as biology, data analytics and automation combine to provide the productivity increases we need to address the challenges..Technology will also help enable an even more consumer-responsive agriculture…”
Some Thoughts As the Debate Continues…
- There needs to be continuing improvement of coordinated approaches along the food supply chain connecting agriculture practices-to-nutrient benefits-to-FDA food labeling.
- Providing the transparency of information desired by the food- consuming public also entails educating consumers about unscientific marketing perceptions (i.e. “organic” does not mean “healthier”!)
- There is only so much room on a package for labels and that limited space should be reserved for science-based nutrition information related to an individual’s health.” If more comprehensive data is needed by consumers it will have to be available and accessible via QR/bar code.
- The types of research and development required in both the agriculture and health industries is costly — but it’s worth it. The payoffs are: improving human health and thus reducing healthcare costs and improving the performance of crops in non-traditional growing areas around the world and ultimately reducing world hunger.
- Agriculture industry advocates must work together with Health industry advocates on:
- educating the regulatory community regarding scientific advancements in genomes to prevent onerous regulations from being promulgated, and
- strengthening domestic and international patent protections and enforcement. Simply, the advancements achieved in both the Agriculture and Health industries through U.S. research and technologies must come at some cost to the rest of the world.
- Median household income for the U.S. is $55,775. It’s most often the consumer’s pocketbook that rules what foods do, or do not, go into their pantry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Analysis of Impact on the updates to the food nutrition labels alone is estimated to cost food manufacturers (a midpoint of) $1.9 billion. FDA acknowledges, “Meeting the requirements of the proposed rules would impose costs on both industry and consumers.” They also noted, “Increased prices would reduce consumption of certain food items. Consumers would pay more for this food, requiring some reduction in other, valued consumption.” FDA and food companies need to continue working together to find the best, least costly methods to help food companies change their labels and alleviate any negative impacts to those most vulnerable.