Biology speaker causes debate

Tanner Cole

A representative from agriculture giant and genetic modification powerhouse Monsanto Company spoke in Snell Hall last Friday to offer an alternative career path to biology students.

However, the company’s presence caused some anguish among the students’ professors. 

Every other Friday, the WKU biology department hosts a guest speaker for their Biology Seminar Series. Last Friday’s speaker was Jim Roberts, who holds a doctorate in botany from the University of Georgia and leads an agriculture traits discovery team at Monsanto. 

Monsanto, a self-described “sustainable agriculture company,” is a leading name in pesticides, herbicides and perhaps most conspicuously, genetic modification. 

The company’s name tends to crop up in debates over the health regulations of genetically modified foods, especially after the company won the Supreme Court case Bowman v. Monsanto and gained legal backing for its patent on its genetically altered soybeans.  

As the room filled with students and professors, several members of the biology faculty were noticeably missing from the crowd. 

Cassandra Cantrell, the advising coordinator, was among the absentee list. She and her colleagues felt morally uncomfortable about showing support for the company.

“Those of us that kind of took a stance against them, our stance was coming from seed-saving and the integrity of our food source,” Cantrell said. “It’s kind of a scary though, you know, someone owning our food sources. They get to dictate who plants what and when, which then means they get to dictate what we eat, when we eat. These are new bioethical considerations that we’re just now moving into.”

Cantrell’s concerns stemmed heavily from her background as a beekeeper. She’s looked after hives since the early ‘90s and is affiliated with the WKU beekeeping club. She’s worried about the impact Monsanto’s products may be having on the global population of honeybees. She pointed to the ban on Monsanto’s products in the European Union as an example of fears surrounding Monsanto. 

“What we need to be concerned about are the unintended impacts,” she said. “We don’t know often what those are going to be.”

Roberts anticipated the controversy of his visit, but it didn’t deter him from coming to WKU—on the contrary, it was a contributing factor.

“That’s part of the reason I came,” Roberts said. “I think it’s important to hear some of the benefits of what we do and how agriculture has changed. I always want to hear diverse opinions. We’re interested in hearing other views too.”

His presentation was titled “Discovering the Next Generation of Agronomic Traits at Monsanto.” He discussed the company’s ambitious goals in food production and its technological pursuits. The seminar focused on the science behind the development of many of Monsanto’s products. 

Biology professor, Robert Wyatt arranged the seminar. Wyatt studied alongside Roberts at the University of Georgia. In an attempt to break away from the academia focused standard at the seminars, Wyatt called up his old friend.

“It’s nice for our students to see that there are employment opportunities that aren’t academic,” Wyatt said. “Most of our other speakers are professors. Sometimes it’s nice for them to see that there’s avenues other than just becoming a professor … There’s people out there feeding people and curing diseases. It’s nice to see that there are private sector things you can do with your education as well as just being academic.”

Despite her reservations about the company, Cantrell agreed that hearing the opposing argument was a healthy part of the academic world. 

“That’s what education is about really, pushing the envelope a little bit,” she said. “Opening up and hearing another side that we may not have heard before or thought about.”