Reflections of a Science Pioneer

1/31/2006

Rob Horsch Says Goodbye to Monsanto

Photo of Rob Horsch
In November 2006, after 25 years of service with Monsanto and its predecessor companies, Rob Horsch will join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as senior program officer, focusing on improving crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa. His career at Monsanto has been a distinguished one, including sharing with three other Monsanto scientists the United States National Medal of Technology in 1998. Here he talks about agriculture and his Monsanto career.

If it weren't for some dirty dishes at the University of California, I might have become a yeast geneticist instead of a plant engineer. I needed some money as a student, and took a job washing dishes in the school's plant pathology lab. The professor who ran the lab was studying fungal diseases of soybean, and he let me help with some of the experiments after I finished washing the glassware. And later I worked for two professors studying cotton. But for graduate school, I intended to study yeast genetics, because I thought plants were too hard.

My yeast genetics professor got bored with that line of study and began working on plants. Instead of going through seed, which would be more traditional genetics, the researchers used cells in culture. I got hooked on plants at that point. That was also the beginning of the work I ended up doing at Monsanto.

At Monsanto, we started by studying model plants like the petunia. It was a good model because it was easy to handle in culture and well-studied genetically due to the economic market for flower colors. What we learned with the petunia made it possible to be successful in soybeans a few years later. It took a lot of wisdom and courage for both the scientific and the business leaders to support work on petunia instead of tackling soybeans right from the start.

In January of 1983, we were ready to announce the expression of a specific trait -- resistance to a specific antibiotic in transformed petunia cells, which demonstrated gene transfer and gene function of a recombinant gene from the lab into live petunia cells. It was the big announcement at the 1983 Miami winter symposium. Not originally on the symposium's agenda, we had to show the event's chairperson the petunia results before we could speak to meeting participants the next day.

The list of my memorable moments at Monsanto is long, from those first transformed petunia cells to the first ag biotech field trial -- tomatoes planted in Jerseyville, Illinois, in June 1987. Those moments include a simple drive through the countryside in 1996 – I drove for 20 minutes past nothing but fields of Roundup Ready soybeans and said to myself, "Oh my gosh, this is big."

The greatest meaning for me is not the numerous plant transformations or awards or the recognitions our work has received. The great meaning for me is the incredible teamwork environment that gave Monsanto the edge. There are a lot of smart people in the world, but not a lot of great teams.

After leading Monsanto's plant tissue culture and transformation efforts, I became responsible for smallholder agricultural development partnerships and public-private technology cooperation programs. I've seen that Monsanto's technologies developed for U.S. agriculture were valuable and relevant in developing countries. And I shouldn't have been surprised, because developing country farmers have almost all the same problems as U.S. farmers, but, unfortunately, they have other problems as well. And I was surprised that Monsanto's first-generation products would be as valuable and rapidly adopted on such a large scale as they were.

Then came one of those life-changing phone calls. It was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asking me to join them as senior program officer. My mission: improve crop yields via the best and most appropriate science and technology, including biotechnology, for problems in regions including sub-Saharan Africa.

The decision to go to the Gates Foundation wasn't easy. My friends are here at Monsanto, my history is here at Monsanto, and there's still a lot of high-impact work to be done. But it's a second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start on the ground floor with a group of serious, dedicated people.

My passion is working with the developing world. And there are millions of individual reasons. One was visiting cotton growers in South Africa, and seeing and hearing first-hand what success with Bollgard insect-protected cotton meant to them. Another was hearing about the smallhold farmer in India who, because of the profit he earned from using our technologies, could now afford to send his daughter – and not only his son – to college.

Those are the kinds of experiences that stick with you. Every statistic is a real person, a real family, and a real community. And we have tools that promise to make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of farm families.

My experience at Monsanto, and my new career at the Gates Foundation, can help make that promise happen.