Interview with Prof. Marc Van Montagu
Informational interview by Lucas Vanhaelewyn
It was a great honour to have this inspirational interview with Prof. Marc Van Montagu (84) on behalf of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) and CONVIRON. Prof. Van Montagu holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry / Biochemistry and a Bachelor in Chemistry from Ghent University. He is a pioneer in plant molecular biology, well known for the discovery of the TI plasmid (with J. Schell) and the inventor of the Agrobacterium tumefaciens transformation technology which is now used globally to produce GMO plants. Prof. Van Montagu has received many prestigious awards and honours, one example is the World Food Prize in October 2013.
What are your current responsibilities? How does a typical work-day day look like?
Well, that is a story and a surprising question as I retired 17-18 years ago. I live in Brussels and I commute every day to Ghent. I get up at 6:30 am and have the luck to have an indoor swimming pool in my house, I swim daily, as physical activity is important. Then, I take care of our breakfast. My wife and I are both over 80 and her health is not perfect. At that point most duties are done and I leave the house around 9:20 am and take the train to Ghent to the international Plant Biotechnology Outreach (IPBO) in the technology park. At around 5:00 pm I take the train back home, go shopping and in the evening I often spend my time on reading scientific literature and philosophy besides emailing and making international phone calls.
If we look back on your career, could you tell us what has been particularly rewarding about this career path or maybe the other way around, what would you have done differently?
I guess everyone would have done things differently after all we have learned. I found it especially rewarding to have a good secondary school education with teachers that taught us good science. This includes mathematics and physics that allowed me to get to understand the physical world. Through organic chemistry, I got interested in biochemistry which was rarely taught in Europe just after the war. Another rewarding thing was getting to know Lucien De Coninck, I call him a local hero. He was my biology teacher and at that time he started with humanistic organization, making a direct link between biology, society and fundamental sciences such as chemistry and physics. This rapidly brought the possibility to start a PhD. Here I got to see everything we don’t know and what science needs. Even now we still know very little about plants. A good example is that only recently people started to accept that the whole microbiome world and all the living organisms in the soil play an important role in the way plants develop.
You have been promoting GMO technology and I can imagine this comes with challenges. How do you deal with criticism? And what advices would you give to plant scientists on how they should communicate about their work to the general public?
An interesting question, in our education we learn about science but not about the society and the economics of society. Economy is based on continuous growth and the world population is ever-increasing, we cannot go back so we need to find solutions. Human ingenuity lead to solutions such as chemicals but in this way we are slowly destroying the environment. We now understand that not only human ecology is important but also all the other living organisms on the planet. If you explain these problems to the people, they should understand that GMOs is a step forward. It is indeed difficult to explain this to people who don’t know the science behind GMO plants. We as plant scientists also don’t know the details about nuclear science and we also listen to advices of our peers. So, we as plant scientists have to learn to listen to society which wants explanations, talk to them and not just say that they are silly as they don’t know the science. Moreover, people are not rational, they have emotions. Emotions are the beauty of life and they are important to survive. We evolved with a neurobiology to have fear from the unknown, thousands of years ago we would have been eaten if we were not fearful. The fear of GMO is not any different if you don’t understand the technology. Besides that, a car is actually very dangerous but nobody is afraid of a car, as we have a good system to work with. Furthermore, making crosses in plants can also be dangerous as we don’t exactly know what is going on. So, try to explain what the GMO technology is about and that it can be managed well when a good system is in place.
Apart from your academic research career, you have also founded several companies. What recommendations would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Try to first understand the economic world that we are living in now. Don’t just dream, your product should make economic sense and not only be scientifically interesting. I started with Plant Genetic Systems (now Bayer CropScience) in the early 80s. After some years, people saw what we had achieved and thought that we understood the economics, so people came to us. At some point we had about 70 important project proposals on the table. Luckily we met Suri Sehgal which helped to establish Pioneer International. We discussed the 70 proposals with him, and we ended up with only 8 projects which made PGS a success. This is a very important lesson, you need to focus! Another serious thing to take into account is that we live in a regulatory world, most of your funding will be spent on regulatory systems such as lawyers and not necessarily on the science. You should understand that making a product is very different from starting a science lab. If you think you can enjoy that, do it, but otherwise stay in science, we do need a lot of scientists (laughter).
The last question is about a recent development in Africa. What is your opinion about the new biotech law in Uganda that is going to open the door for GMO crops?
Finally, I would say. That is the wisdom of the president of Uganda that he took this step. I hope that the neighbouring countries which are in an economic union will quickly follow as it is badly needed. It is clear that all the arguments causing fear for GMO are wrong. In Africa there is an enormous tradition of spreading knowledge verbally and people do listen to arguments. That is why scientists have an enormous responsibility of trying to explain the science. Let’s be optimistic. It is you and the young people of ASPB who will have to do it.