Bringing the public with you... lessons in social license and plant genetics, with Vonnie Estes

A conversation with Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Technology at the Produce Marketing Association

Vonnie Estes has been at the forefront of genetics in agriculture for 30 years, with roles at companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and multiple biotech startups.

In this extract from the Agtech… So What? Podcast (transcript edited slightly for clarity), Vonnie speaks to Sarah Nolet about some of the hard lessons she’s learned along the way, including:

  • Social license and genetics in food

  • Is history repeating? Comparing the hype in biofuels with soil carbon

  • The future of plant breeding

Sarah: Let's start with a little bit of your background. How did you end up working in agriculture, and increasingly in the agtech world? 

Vonnie: So I got my undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University,  in horticulture and worked for a little bit in greenhouses, and realized that I was never going to pay any bills working in greenhouses.  And then,  I went to UC Davis and got my master's degree in plant pathology.

My first job out of graduate school was working with a company called DNA Plant Technologies, which was one of the very early genetic engineering plant companies.  It doesn't exist anymore. But, that was a really exciting time and so for the next 15 years,  I worked in ag biotech, really on the cutting edge of technology and how we can grow more sustainably. I worked for a company called Paradigm Genetics and I worked for Monsanto for a while. 

Social license and genetics in food

Sarah: Can you talk a little about what the conversation was like on sustainability and social license? I'm imagining that looking back, everyone was saying, you know, this is going to change the world and it's going to be sustainable and everyone's going to love it. But, that’s of course, not what happened.

Vonnie: Yeah, you know, now when you say you worked for Monsanto, like, everybody cringes. But, that was in the mid 90s and I'm sure there are conversations in the boardroom that are different from this, but for me being there, I was thinking ‘we have these cool tools, like we can do these really cool things so that you don't have to spray insecticide and don’t have to till and be more sustainable’. So the conversations internally were like, this is really cool stuff, and this is going to allow us to grow more sustainably.

And what we completely missed out of arrogance... was that we kind of needed to bring people along with us, in that little journey of that thought process. And, so when it wasn't communicated to consumers in a good way ... then that's when a lot of the problems happen, but it's really interesting to think back on. To me, it was quite exciting that the technology could do this and really see the missteps that happen from a communication and social license point of view.

Sarah:  Was there ever a moment or a story of like, consumer pushback or something happening where you started to realize maybe you got it wrong?

Vonnie:  Yeah, actually I'll tell you a more recent story. So I was up in Washington state the summer before last, before COVID when we were still traveling, and we were doing grower visits and we had dinner with a bunch of apple growers. And I was talking about the Arctic apple, which is a GMO apple. It's a non-browning apple, a great sustainability and food waste story….I think they've done a pretty good job of communicating to consumers. They don't hide it. They tell people this is GMO. 

And we were at this brewery, there were hops growing in the background, and it was really beautiful. And so I started talking about technology, and that there's all these great technologies that are coming to apples. And I start talking about the Arctic apple, and I just see the room just go dead. I see the group go dead, eyes like daggers. And I'm like, this is very familiar. Like I remember this.

And of all people, I should know not to bring up a topic like that until you really understand how it affects the people in the room! Before Arctic apple, when they were trading outside the country, they never had to answer the question ‘Is this GMO?’  So that was an interesting flash forward- even 20 years later you really need to pay attention to who you're talking to and how you talk to them about technology and food.

Sarah:  Yeah, my sense is that the industry hasn't fully learned this lesson and because it's not an easy one to learn that we say now, ‘Oh, we need to listen more and we need to have more conversations and highlight the benefits’. And then we sort of do that. But the response isn't really all that different. And yet at the same time, there's lots of research about how agriculture is really trusted and we have all this goodwill and people do believe in farmers. So I guess my sense is, I don't know what we do differently. Do you have a good sense of how to do this differently? 

Vonnie:  Well, I think we've got another opportunity with gene editing. I've worked in gene editing at a couple of different companies and done a lot of consulting work on gene editing and, one of the big differences is that we can do a lot of good consumer traits with gene editing.

And so if you lead with a trait that consumers want, like if you have better tasting strawberries or a pitless cherry or foods that are more convenient or foods that are more nutritious, foods that have a better sustainability story, that you communicate correctly, I think consumers are going to come along.

And I think it's possible like through COVID, and some people getting a better understanding of science and what science can really do to help us, that there's going to be more openness to what science is doing for our food in a way that's helping. So, I'm hopeful.  

Sarah: What's the conversation like with growers, you're now at PMA and you'd be talking to companies that are on the production side and marketing side as well, thinking about how to have these conversations, but also what technologies to invest in? What's the sense from industry around gene editing in particular, but to agtech more broadly?

Vonnie: I think with gene editing, there's a real fear in breeding and production companies, that they don't want to be first. You know, they don't want to be the ones that the consumer says, ‘Oh, you're the biggest blueberry company and we know that you're using gene editing. We're not going to buy it.’ They don't want the blow back. 

And so I think we're in this really funny state right now because lots of companies are using gene editing in their breeding programs, but they're keeping it very separate. People are not doing it on the sly, but they're keeping very separate breeding programs just to see what the technology can do. But they're afraid because they don't want the consumer backlash.

Sarah:  How do you think that gene editing will change? Or will it change sort of supply chain dynamics and kind of who owns what part of the industry, like does ownership change when these  companies have access to gene editing ….do you see more vertical integration or more fragmentation?

Vonnie:  I think that's a really interesting question. I'm hoping it makes sense for it to stay separate and for there to be platform-based companies that do genome mapping and that do the actual edits and that, you know, test in the greenhouse.

And I'm hoping that those companies stay separate from the germplasm companies, because it just doesn't make sense for, say, a great producer to make big investments in that type of technology, that should be a separate platform company. And as far as the value goes, that's what these companies have to look at, like who captures the value and where is that value captured?

And so that is something that I think everyone's trying to work out, if you're capturing consumer value, how does that go back to the genetics company? And that isn't worked out yet, but I think those are going to be interesting conversations. 

Is history repeating? Comparing the hype in biofuels with soil carbon

Sarah: This sort of parallels a broader conversation around carbon in some ways. There are all these sustainability drivers now and genetic engineering can help with some of these consumer-facing attributes, but there's one question - do consumers care? Will they pay more? Are they concerned? But then there's also like, how do we actually incentivize growers to change behavior? How do we make sure rewards are there? 

So it kind of strikes me that there's a bit of parallel between this conversation and ecosystem services and carbon markets as well. 

Vonnie: I listened to your last podcast, that was talking about carbon, which is fabulous, ‘cause it's such a hot area and I think there are some parallels in just trying to figure out who owns what and where does value accrue?

I think it's a little different because right now, that whole breeding space is just better set up. It's more established, you know, I think with carton markets, it's the Wild West right now.

Sarah:  You've drawn parallels to biofuels, and I'm really curious to hear your thinking there. So, can you give us a little bit of a one-on-one there and why you see parallels with carbon.

Vonnie: Alright, so this was in the early 2000s, like 2004, and everyone was really looking for a different source, we needed something besides oil and gas, because the prices were going up so high. And so everyone started looking at biofuels. And first it was corn ethanol, which I was personally less interested in just because there were no great technology leaps we were going to have there.

And so we started looking at,second-generation fuel, which is what I ended up working on for 10 years of my career. And that was taking either crop residue or crops that were grown specifically for energy crops, like sorghum and switchgrass and a number of others that were grown to make biofuels.

And this was one of the parallels that I was thinking about with carbon… in 2007, then President Bush made a comment in the state of the union address about switchgrass. And then suddenly, like switchgrass was a thing and everyone was working on switchgrass and the government started putting so much money in and said that there was going to be 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017, that was going to be made.

And, half of that was going to be from second generation fuels. So in 2007, they invested over a billion dollars into developing the technology for this, but they started with the technology at a really high level. 

They said, build these gigantic plants. And my job at the time, I was working for DuPont and I was in charge of a program that we were looking at converting, corn stover into fuel. And all I had was a beaker in a lab, like that was my technology. It was a beaker, you know, fermenting in a lab and people were saying, ‘here's a cheque for a hundred million dollars, go build a hundred million gallon ethanol plant’. And, so it was a lot of push without really looking at the system. You know, without looking at what technology do we need? 

So, I think when we look at carbon now… you know, the government's got to be involved, because they set targets and a lot of the standards. But how do we make sure that we're going after this in the right way? And that we're not getting too far ahead, putting too much money in when the technology is not ready. 

Sarah: And do you see parallels now with Biden's talk about climate change and a possible carbon bank and the conversations today?

Vonnie: Yeah it’s like, I've lived this before and so I'm actually very interested in it and I'm starting to dig deep into it too, just because it is the next shiny thing. So I have talked to a number of startups that are thinking about different ways of doing things. And I'm putting together some conversations at PMA about it. Some of the people you've had on your podcast, you know, from Cargill and from General Mills and those people that are having those conversations, I want to know, how do we talk to the produce sector about that?

So, with carbon sequestration, I mean, you look at all the trees that grow produce, and that's a pretty good deal. You know, you've got a lot of carbon that stays in there for a long time. So it is something that I'm exploring right now. You know, how does the produce get involved in it? How do they make money not lose money?

So it's. a very exciting time, but there are a lot of pitfalls and just, you know, fools rush in, I mean the amount of money that the government may put in the wrong place.

The future of plant breeding

Sarah:  You're in a unique position of getting to scan and scout and think about what the future is going to look like. What are some of the trends or technologies you're particularly excited about or particular technologies that are going to have a massive change to what food and ag looks like?

Vonnie:  Well, I think, you know, I've talked a lot about breeding. It's kind of my first love. And so I really think the breeding tools that we have are really going to help and form and shape what we can do around, climate change and what we can do around making fruits and vegetables tasty, last longer, have less food waste. I think there's a lot that we could do there and I hope we're able to use the tools that we have and communicate with consumers in a way that they're accepting of it. 

So I think certainly drought resistance is a big one. That's why blueberries expanded, you know, through genetics, where you could grow them where you couldn't grow before. And that wasn't GMO, that's just genetics. The climates are changing, you know, hotter and colder and wetter and drier, and we need to be able to respond to those. And breeding is a great way to be able to do that. 

Breeding takes a little longer, but I don't know, developing a new pesticide takes a long time too, but breeding is just kind of a better way.

Sarah:  And how about other countries getting involved in this? We've done a little bit of work looking at the Middle East and obviously Singapore has massive food security goals.

Vonnie:  Well,  I've been having conversations in Singapore, and so they import 90% of their food. And,especially during COVID, like, this was a very scary time for them. And so the government has started to pump quite a bit of money into looking at eggs, fish and vegetables. They're trying to produce 30% of their food in Singapore by 2030, and putting lots of systems in place. And really all they can do is vertical- they can't go out, so they have to go up.

There was one guy telling me they're working on vertical sheep farming, which I just can't imagine. And countries like Brazil are certainly adopting a lot of different technologies and looking at, you know, what else can we grow? How can we grow it? How can we do this better? So it's certainly happening globally. 

Want to find out more? This is just an extract from the podcast - listen to the full conversation with Vonnie Estes in the audio at the top of the post or on Apple podcasts. 

Useful Resources:

Produce Marketing Association

PMA Takes on Tech Podcast 

2021 Food Supply Chain Predictions 

Genetic engineering and the Arctic apple

Key takeaways