Why Missouri Botanical Garden's Peter Raven, world-renowned environmentalist, courts Monsanto's favor, boosts its biotech and takes its money

The Missouri Botanical Garden auditorium is strung with enough cords and cables to truss a yeti. Stepping carefully, Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's Science Friday, walks onstage to prepare for today's hot topic: "bioprospecting," the hunt for commercially viable medicines and other plant extracts amid the developing world's fast-vanishing green gold.

To his right sits a panel of experts. Two of them, the Garden's applied-research director and a Shaman Pharmaceuticals vice president, stare fixedly ahead, trying to ignore the audience in front of them. As one clears his throat and adjusts his tie, the other scoots his chair up, nervously tapping the microphone.

The third guest, renowned botanist and Garden director Peter Raven, is utterly relaxed. Cracking jokes at his stone-faced colleagues, he leans forward to ask bright-kid-on-a-field-trip questions about NPR's soundboard.

Peter Raven
Jennifer Silverberg
Peter Raven

At a gesture from Flatow, silence falls and Raven turns solemn. He makes a dignified, eloquent plea on behalf of vanishing species and describing the Garden as "a kind of diffuse Noah's ark for plants." After the broadcast, a producer compliments him: "We'd like to do one with you alone. We'll be in touch."

Riding a wave of praise, Raven makes his way toward the reception. Before he's even reached the baby quiches, a soft-voiced woman has him buttonholed. "Um ... I have a question about Monsanto's relationship with the Danforth Center." Raven smiles encouragingly. She takes a deep breath. "How can it really be independent? Won't a lot of it be genetic-engineering research?"

"Well, a lot of it will be plant-molecular-biology research," he revises, explaining that St. Louis' new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center stands independent of its founders -- Monsanto, the Garden and four universities. Granted, those institutions' leaders make up half the board, but, Raven says, "it will own all its own intellectual-property rights. And of course it is free to make whatever contracts it wants with anybody, including those founding members."

She blinks. "Are you concerned about the patenting of genes by corporations?"

"It's something we have to do very carefully," he replies, as blandly confident as he was on the air.

"The rest of us are trusting people like you," the woman reminds him, reaching out impulsively to touch his tie. "Thank you for doing the right thing."

He beams at her, turns toward two elderly ladies in suitably floral print and then moves off, skimming the surface of the reception like a dragonfly.

Raven taped Science Friday at the end of August, when he was brainstorming a biological-research center on the fragile rainforested island of Dominica, planning a trip to Ecuador, chatting with a Department of the Interior official who wanted him to give a talk in South Africa on invasive species, and contemplating his next advice to Pope John Paul II in the 80-member Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Science Friday was a nanosecond. Yet everything was there in microcosm: The world-class reputation for botanical brilliance. The dire environmental statistics, recited with passionate urgency. The agile mind and social finesse. The vague corporate optimism.

And the confusion of environmentalists who can't decide whether one of their heroes has been bought.

The pioneer of agricultural biotech, Monsanto's been anything but cautious in unleashing its commercial products on the world. A recent $8 billion buying spree made it the world's second-largest seed company. Its first genetically modified (GM) crops only hit the market four years ago, and they already cover more than 52 million acres in the U.S. alone. Antitrust lawsuits have been filed in 30 countries, accusing Monsanto and the other giants of using biotech to control world agriculture. Europeans are furious because Monsanto has resisted demands for long-term testing and labeling. Back home, a coalition of nonprofits -- including the Council for Responsible Genetics and the Center for Food Safety -- is so angry they're buying full-page ads in the New York Times. Scientists around the world are warning that large-scale GM crops are unpredictable and unstable (GM klebsiella, soil bacteria, have the unexpected effect of killing wheat); that they threaten lacewings, ladybugs and monarch butterflies; that randomly inserted genes do spread, on their own, to nearby weeds; that we may see increases in toxicity and untoward effects -- such as antibiotic resistance -- on the human immune system.

Meanwhile, the developing world is protesting the bioprospecting they call biopiracy and the patents that let high-tech corporations own life itself. They say Monsanto's one-time-use seeds encourage monocropping instead of environmentally healthier crop rotation, and small, poor nations are finding themselves dependent on multinationals for food they used to grow themselves.

Raven's not bothered by any of this. He admits that positioning biotech as the only way to feed the world's hungry (Monsanto's favorite strategy) is "a bit crude," but he's convinced that sustainable agriculture will require biotech. He's also convinced that biotech can reduce use of traditional pesticides and stanch the hemorrhage of the world's biodiversity. To him, these are such acute, life-threatening emergencies that any peripheral damage -- a few monarch butterflies killed, a couple million more gallons of Roundup sprayed right on top of the crops -- pales by comparison.

Peter Raven's been trying to save the world, in a big way, since grad school. But in tiny species-rich countries whose people are starving, environmentalists don't make much headway talking about long-term sustainability. And if years of juggling government grants and courting government agencies have taught Raven anything, it's that government does what is politically expedient.

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