Dumb Question: Why Does Whole Foods Need to Save Us From DuPont?

Photographer: Victor J.

A Whole Foods Market Inc. store in New York. Blue/Bloomberg Close

A Whole Foods Market Inc. store in New York. Blue/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Victor J.

A Whole Foods Market Inc. store in New York. Blue/Bloomberg

Today, The Grid introduces a new blog feature, "Dumb Question," in which we hurl naive, misinformed or otherwise uncomfortable questions at unsuspecting targets. I put the first Dumb Question to Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer, the seed division of DuPont Co., who met with reporters and editors yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. 

The Grid: DuPont was founded in 1803, which means it’s been a part of America longer than the state of Ohio has been. It seems that natural, traditional, American seeds were good enough for the founding fathers. So what’s wrong with them now that they need to be ‘improved’ by all sorts of gene tampering?

Did you see that Whole Foods last week announced that it was going to begin labeling products that have genetically modified ingredients in them? DuPont has been a part of America for so long, it seems sad that it’s trying to poison us now? Why this turn? 

Paul Schickler: Very good questions -- and provocative. A couple of things. First of all, about growing native seeds. This is about improvements. It’s taking the learnings of one generation, one era, one decade, and improving to the next. I hesitate to think what we’d be faced with today, around the world and in the United States, if we were using practices and seeds from one hundred or two hundred years ago. 

Dumb Question: First in a Series

       

Example: In the 1920s, before the introduction and adoption of hybrid corn, the yields across the United States were somewhere around 30 bushels per acre. Today, the trend line is 160. So again, that’s less than 100 years -- and your example goes back even further than that.

Another way to look at that question is DuPont: The reason DuPont has lived for more than 200 years is by continuing to grow, reinvent itself and change. We started in the 1800s by developing and marketing gunpowder during the civil challenges at the start of the United States. It evolved into a science company that brought forth some of the biggest innovations in America -- Nylon, polyester, Lycra, Kevlar and on and on -- that really had their roots in chemistry. 

Now you’ve got the capability of using biology, chemistry and industrial sciences to solve these challenges of the world. That’s been a pretty fast transition. The last two decades we’ve exited the fiber business. More recently exited the paint business. Today, 45 percent of DuPont’s revenue comes from the biological side: agriculture, food, nutrition, and the industrial biosciences around cellulosic ethanol production. 

Those are good examples of using science to continue to advance, grow and solve global issues. 

'The products of agriculture are the safest they've ever been.'

Related to the Whole Foods announcement of last week, first of all, I think that whether it’s proven through testing, or proven through utilization, the products of agriculture today are the safest that they’ve ever been. 

So what do I mean by that?: The way in which we can use biotechnology to put insect protection into the seed basically eliminates the need for a pesticide to be sprayed. So you’ve removed an input that otherwise had become widely used -- in some cases increasingly -- because of increased insect pressure. 

In the case of herbicide tolerance, there are a couple benefits. It’s allowed us to use lower rates of safer chemicals to go after weeds. That’s been a benefit to the environment. It’s also allowed us to really move into no-till practices. I think more than one-third of the United States now is in no-till. Seventy-five percent of Brazil. That preserves water that’s in the soil. It leaves organic matter in the soil, and it prevents soil erosion. So those are not poisoning but in fact true benefits that can come from utilization of advanced science. 

We’ve got challenges, whether they’re health challenges, nutrition challenges or feeding 9 billion people in the next 30-40 years. Our philosophy is, we don’t want to exclude opportunity or solutions or choices that individuals might have. Everything needs to be part of the solution.

I would suggest that [those] who are part of the labeling campaign, you might look at their motivation. Their motivation might be to kill or limit opportunities for other production methods. If you look at motivation between those that are against science, technology, agricultural practices, big food. There’s a certain motivation there. Our point is you need all solutions, working together to solve the problems of the world. 

Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business. 

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