GM WATCH COMMENT: Monsanto's home town rag provides Monsanto's former vice president for international development partnerships with a sympathetic profile as a man bestriding the trinity of scientist, businessman and humanitarian.

According to Rob Horsch, people here [ie at Monsanto, where he was being interviewed] "will be more helpful to me than I will be to them." Yet, interestingly, Horsch didn't even make the effort to be interviewed away from his former employer's offices.

And while his future employment with the Gates Foundation is presented as a less restricted extension of his "rewarding" "humanitarian" role at Monsanto, the latter always had a decidedly self-interested purpose. In an earlier interview Horsch described his role in the company as twofold: to "create goodwill and help open future markets" for Monsanto.

Both aspects of his role are perfectly illustrated by the most famous project Horsch initiated for Monsanto - the GM sweet potato project fronted by Florence Wambugu. That project was a huge success in terms of public relations - generating an enormous amount of media hype - while also helping open doors to GM in Africa.

The only thing the project failed to do was get a useful product out to the farmers it was supposedly helping. (See 'Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails', New Scientist)

But the project remained a successful vehicle for poor-washing GM while driving forward the regulatory frameworks and the technical capacity that the biotech corporations require to build-up global markets for their GM crops.

The article below makes it clear that Rob Horsch at the Gates Foundation will be very much an extension of Horsch at Monsanto.

In his new role Horsch expects "to tap local institutions". "St. Louis will be a resource for me," he says. Monsanto too, we are told, "wants to work with (organizations) like the Gates Foundation and allow them to incorporate our tools". The Gates Foundation is already, we are told, tied into the Monsanto-initiated and backed Danforth Center, which sits cheek by jowl with the company.

All of which suggests that for Horsch and Monsanto, his new role is very much business as usual.

Scientist to humanitarian
By Rachel Melcer
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 26 November 2006

Rob Horsch, who spent 25 years pioneering biotech crops and building up Monsanto Co., is a bit boggled by his new job: spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fight hunger in the developing world.

"I actually don't know how to think about this and how to talk about it," he said in an interview at Monsanto's Creve Coeur headquarters, just days after retiring from that company to start his new post at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

Horsch left his longtime home and colleagues to follow a dream, albeit a daunting one. At the world's largest philanthropy, flush with funds recently donated by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Horsch is senior program officer for agricultural development.

His task is to find and fund the most promising means for helping the poorest of the world's poor - the more than 700 million people who live on less than $1 a day, depend on small-scale farming and often are hungry.

"I think, I hope I've got a set of experiences and skills that are unique and can make a difference," he said.

As a scientist, Horsch helped develop methods of genetically modifying crops to withstand herbicide applications and kill harmful pests. He created products that reduce the use of environmentally damaging pesticides, make it possible to farm without tilling to limit soil erosion, and boost crop yields.

As a businessman, he watched the bottom line and focused on projects that brought billions of dollars to Monsanto. He translated scientific theory into products bought by farmers and planted on millions of acres each year.

But it as a humanitarian that Horsch hopes to have the most impact.

Since 1995, he was Monsanto's vice president for international development partnerships, responsible for working with public and nonprofit entities to bring modern farm products and technologies to the developing world.

The work was rewarding, he said. But it can't match the scope and freedom he anticipates having at the Gates Foundation.

Horsch said his annual budget, though large, is "a drop in the bucket" compared with amounts spent by governments or on global trade. But it comes with a freedom companies and countries lack ”” he is not constrained by a profit motive, or a big bureaucracy and politics.

"That brings a unique power to it," he said.

Yet the Gates Foundation, created by one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs with his Microsoft Corp. fortune, has a decidedly business-like bent. Projects must pan out with measurable benefits, or they are cut, Horsch said. There is no room for sentimental favorites or throwing good money after bad.

That will be true even for approaches Horsch holds dear, such as the use of genetically modified crops.

Raj Shah, the foundation's director of agriculture and financial services and Horsch's boss, summed up the priority: "What we really focus on are the scientific and technological breakthroughs that will save lives, end hunger, dramatically impact poverty and increase security."

Much of that can be achieved, Shah said, through conventional strategies such as the use of improved hybrid seeds and fertilizers, educating farmers and increasing their access to markets.

Many scientists, including Horsch, believe great results will come from the next generation of biotech crops - those modified to survive in a drought, or with added nutritional benefits.

But the Gates Foundation doesn't want its hiring of Horsch to be seen as it advocating agricultural biotech. Each country must decide on its own whether to use the controversial technology, though the foundation will do what it can to provide accurate data and make sure those are informed choices, Shah said.

Horsch "has been a tremendous leader in science and technology in agriculture. He's also a leader in the sense that he's spent a lot of time in Africa ”¦ and he understands the full-value chain that's needed to help farmers improve their lives and their livelihoods," he said.

Jerry Steiner, executive vice president of commercial acceptance at Monsanto, said only people who haven't worked with Horsch would expect him to push biotech crops over all else. "People who know Rob Horsch know that he's a guy who looks at problems and at what needs to happen first" to build sustainable economies.

Horsch promised to endlessly ask questions, seek advice and listen.

"The ultimate answer lies in empowering individual people with choice and freedom. They'll tell you when you're giving them something they value and something they don't," he said. "It's about what people want and need - and not just what's right and wrong" from your perspective, or even based on scientific proof.

Still, that doesn't mean Horsch will shun technology. Genetic analysis is helping breeders to more quickly identify and produce non-biotech crops that have improved yield and other agronomic traits. Biotech crops are being planted and showing value in South Africa, India, China and other developing nations.

And there is much to be gained through information technology, Horsch said. Farmers can use the Internet to see local, national and global prices for their crops, or to learn about the latest agricultural techniques.

At Monsanto, Horsch started a project to transform humanitarian aid - simple handouts of high-yielding hybrid seed - into development assistance that can support a local economy. Rather than cutting out local seed merchants, who couldn't compete with giveaways and would go out of business, the program uses them as distribution points. Computerized card-readers are installed at shops to identify farmers entitled to seed and credit the merchant for giving it to them, in a method similar to the American food stamp program.

Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit basic research institute in Creve Coeur, said he sees Horsch as a well-rounded advocate, "not wed to biotechnology. ”¦ He will help Gates to identify the areas in which they can have the most impact."

At the same time, however, Horsch has a pioneer's appreciation for crop biotechnology, its promise and pitfalls, Beachy said.

Monsanto's early missteps in promoting genetically modified crops led to a backlash that persists today. Horsch "has been through the wars. ”¦ He knows what can go wrong if the public is not well-informed," Beachy said.

The Danforth Center - already a Gates Foundation grant recipient for a project aimed at improving the nutritional value of cassava - hopes to build on that relationship and help Horsch in his work, Beachy said.

Monsanto, too, "wants to work with (organizations) like the Gates Foundation and allow them to incorporate our tools, to the extent that our tools can make a difference," Steiner said.

Horsch said he expects to tap local institutions in his new role.

"St. Louis will be a resource for me ”¦ because it is one of the most important centers of plant science research in the world," he said. People here "will be more helpful to me than I will be to them."

Horsch said he is excited about his new role, and daunted by the challenge. Helping to feed the poor is a moral and societal imperative and, having seen the impacts of hunger on human health and communities, he feels an urgency to begin.

"Not everything is going to work, and nothing is going to work fast enough or big enough," he said. "But you can't think about that too much or it will drive you crazy to think that you can't solve it today."