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US farm research is getting a shake-up with the creation of a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to fund academic agricultural research. Its director is plant scientist Roger Beachy, whose research led to the first genetically modified crop. Just two days into the job, Beachy spoke to New Scientist about his ties to the crop biotech industry and how he plans to cut farming's contribution to global warming.
Some scientists and environmental activists are worried about your close ties to the plant biotechnology industry, in particular to Monsanto. How do you respond?
I have never worked for Monsanto or any other company. I've always been in the public sector. However, as I've done my work I've always sought to have a way for it to have it be useful. If a company licenses a technology that I have invented, the likelihood is that it will reach the consumer. At Washington University in St Louis I was one of a large number of scientists that received research grants from Monsanto. But when I went to the Scripps Research Institute in California in the 1990s I had no contact with Monsanto for 10 years
Much of the problem comes from nitrogen fertilisers, which release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. So we need to ensure that we have crops developed that have the strongest possible transport mechanisms to get the nitrogen from the soil into the plant.
How will NIFA help increase crop yields in the developing world?
We hope that the private sector could also become involved in donating technologies. The project that is being done by CIMMYT, the international wheat and corn centre in Mexico, along with Monsanto to develop drought-tolerant corn for Africa is a wonderful partnership. I would like to see other companies do the same thing.
Shah, who led research at the Gates Foundation before the Obama administration named him to his USDA post, said he will use his role as ”Chief Scientist” to focus resources around priority areas, seeking breakthroughs in food safety, food security, climate change, biofuels and human nutrition. [...] The USDA also will formally establish the National Institute of Food and Agriculture [...] led by Roger Beachy [...] known for his pioneering research in genetically modified crops, and his work with Monsanto Co.