Depending on what you read and listen to, Monsanto (NYSE:MON) is either one of the most innovative companies in America or the most corrupt company on the third rock from the sun. The company is highly criticized for a laundry list of alleged offenses against the environment, but few turn arguments turn as fierce as one involving populations of honeybees. A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids -- along with several genetically modified plant varieties engineered to produce such compounds -- have been widely viewed as the biggest culprit. The chemicals are produced by Syngenta (NYSE:SYT) and the agricultural subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Group (NYSE:DOW), which makes them easy targets.
It should come as no surprise that opposition groups picked up their megaphones and maxed out the volume in 2011, when Monsanto acquired Beeologics, a start-up company "dedicated to restoring bee health and protecting the future of honeybee pollination." Many suspected that Monsanto was simply trying to silence a company that was about to prove how destructive its biotech seeds and pesticides really were to honeybee populations. While Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and the declining populations of honeybees are often blamed on Monsanto and its peers, the biotech seed producer will probably get the last laugh. As it turns out, critics may be the ones who are silenced in the end.
Silencing critics by silencing genes
Ironically, Beeologics is a biotech company itself -- and one that is developing a portfolio of next-generation gene editing products utilizing RNA interference, or RNAi. The process occurs naturally within cells to defend against viruses (and other parasitic genetic material) and works by silencing genes, or keeping them from being expressed. The technology, which can be fine-tuned to silence a specific gene or genetic sequence, is also being developed by biopharmaceutical companies such as Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Isis Pharmaceuticals, and Genzyme to treat rare genetic disorders with high unmet medical need. It also won Andrew Fire and Craig Mello the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
So how can RNAi save the honeybees? Beeologics and Monsanto are developing the technology to silence two parasites that commonly affect agricultural pollinators: Israeli acute paralysis virus and parasitic mites belonging to the Varroa genus. Both can be targeted at the same time with the same product. Better yet, the first product created by Beeologics is delivered in feed, won't result in viral resistance, is extremely specific, is non-toxic, and does not leave residues on honeybees or honey. Future RNAi products currently being developed by Monsanto, called BioDirect, will be topical agents sprayed onto crops.
It's important to keep a healthy population of honeybees, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that they pollinate nearly one-third of all the food we eat and contribute $20 billion in economic value each year. To keep bees healthy, however, you need to know what is causing their decline. That is proving pretty difficult.
While neonicotinoids have been long thought to be the culprit to declining bee populations, new studies suggest it's a combination of factors that include pesticide use, parasitic viruses and mites, and natural environmental toxins. However, you may be surprised to know that honeybee populations aren't exactly collapsing as many headlines would make you believe. Before you conjure up a master conspiracy theory that the research was paid for by Monsanto, it's important to note two things: (1) Even Monsanto states that honeybee populations are declining, and (2) the following chart uses data collected by the USDA.
That's not to say honeybees don't face obstacles -- they certainly do -- but we're far from losing nature's army of pollinators. In fact, other data show that global hive counts have been steadily increasing since at least 1960. You can read more facts about honeybee population declines from Jon Entine, founder of the Genetic Literacy Project and a contributor for Forbes.
Honeybees are just the beginning
The facts demonstrate that honeybee populations are relatively healthy and far from collapsing in an apocalyptic scenario for our nation's food system. That's good news for everyone -- and future biologic products utilizing highly specific RNAi technology from Beeologics and Monsanto will secure the future of even more agricultural products. The BioDirect portfolio could target resistant weeds, a single species of beetle, or various viral parasites without damaging the surrounding environment. It will be difficult for some people to acknowledge that Monsanto has been and continues to be a driving force in bringing agriculture into the future -- and some will never listen to the case for supporting the company -- but I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential biotechnology holds for our food supply.
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Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, his CAPS page, his previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for the SynBioBeta Blog to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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