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Outreach key to improving Monsanto’s image, official says

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John Purcell, who runs Monsanto’s vegetable seed research and development lab in Woodland, Calif., said the company has made a push in recent years to be more transparent and educate the public about its work.

WOODLAND, Calif. — Better outreach to consumers and efforts to educate the public are keys to improving Monsanto’s image amid controversies over genetically-modified crops and an impending acquisition by fellow giant Bayer, a top company official said.

In the last few years, Monsanto has stepped up public and media tours of its facilities and made greater use of social media to explain its work, said John Purcell, who runs the company’s vegetable seed research and development lab in Woodland.

“It leads to some interesting conversations,” Purcell said of the company’s “Big Ag” image. “I think for certain folks within the organization, it is a challenge. For those of us who’ve been in it awhile, there’s a lot of pride in what we do.

“Spending the time I have working with people who feed the world … has been an amazing experience,” he said.

Purcell’s remarks during a question-and-answer session came as company officials gave reporters a tour of the Woodland facility, which develops seeds for tomatoes, onions and other vegetables, and put on presentations on agricultural technology advances. The lab accelerates the natural plant breeding process but does not use GMO technology.

The tour was similar to one held last summer for journalists at Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village Research Facility outside St. Louis, where company leaders acknowledged that they have been slow to engage GMO critics and were surprised by the vitriolic reaction to Monsanto’s work.

In the last few years, the company has been “intentional” about becoming more transparent and explaining its role in agriculture, Purcell said. As part of that, the Woodland lab holds an open house each summer.

“It’s the model we have to embrace in agriculture,” Purcell said. “We have to pay attention to the 98 percent (of Americans who don’t farm). Not just with GMOs, but everything.”

The push proceeds as regulators in the U.S. and Europe are reviewing the $57 billion acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and chemical company. Purcell said company leaders expect the deal to close by the end of this year.

“The one thing that gets people excited is that the two companies are definitely committed to innovation,” he said.

Asked if the merger will create redundancies between the Woodland facility and Bayer CropScience’s new vegetable seed lab and greenhouses in West Sacramento, Purcell said there are some differences between the two labs. Moreover, ag research facilities in the area already interact and collaborate because of their proximity to the University of California-Davis, he said.

Monsanto is working with other universities, too. The company recently entered into an agreement with the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to use so-called CRISPR Cpf1 technology, which allows researchers to edit genomes at precise locations, according to the institute.

Using the technology, researchers can edit traits in corn, soybeans and other crops and ultimately develop new varieties years sooner than by using traditional breeding techniques, Monsanto vice president of biotechnology Tom Adams has said.

“It’s early,” Purcell said of development and use of the CRISPR technology. As for the wider issue of GMOs, he said it is “one tool” that growers can use.

“In biotech, GMO is a great tool,” he said. “You need all the tools in the tool box.”

He said most people want good, safe, affordable food, and there’s room for all types of production in the marketplace.

“People don’t understand the amount of genetic change that’s already happened (naturally) over literally centuries,” Purcell said.

At the same time, while some in the company wish they could move faster with advances in genetics, “you have to operate within society’s norms,” he said.

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