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Monsanto's Urban Farm introduces students to farming and biotechnology

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - A tiny farm outside the St. Louis Science Center will provide city dwellers with a first-hand opportunity to see how farmers grow crops, including those that have been genetically engineered.

The 20-by-40-foot farm is a collaboration between the Science Center and Monsanto, which is providing the funding. The mini-farm is located along Oakland Avenue just outside the Center's Exploradome. The project is part of the Science Center's preparations for the International Science Festival in October. Also known as SciFest, the event is a science and technology symposium with debates, hands-on workshops and exhibits. The Saint Louis Science Center held the first SciFest in the U.S. in 2008.

"This year we decided that as part of SciFest, what would be really cool is to help kids -- school-age kids from elementary all the way to high school -- understand where their food comes from," said Riddhi Trivedi-St. Clair, a public affairs manager for Monsanto's research and development communications.

Once the planting is finished the plot, dubbed the Monsanto Urban Farm, will be maintained by Trivedi-St. Clair, Pili Dressel, associate director of special exhibits at the Science Center, and volunteers.

Dressel said the site will demonstrate that farming can take place as easily in the city as the country. "We're teaching kids that basically, as long as you take care of the earth, the earth will take care of you," Dressel said. "Healthy fruits and vegetables can be grown anywhere with decent soil, decent sun and a little hard work."

Dressel also pointed out a strong health benefit that comes from farming and gardening. About 110 calories are burned for every 30 minutes spent in a garden.

Also important: teaching children and adults about where the food they eat comes from and what work goes into it. "Most of us get very used to buying our food in plastic packages in the grocery store, whether it be meat or vegetables. So, the idea here is to show what farming feels like," Trivedi-St. Clair said.

Monsanto's farmers will grow food --- sweet corn, squash, pumpkins and tomatoes --- and so-called field crops, such as feed corn, cotton and soybeans. The field crops are the stalwarts in Monsanto's lineup of genetically engineered crops.

Trivedi-St. Clair hopes that having the crops available to children and adults will help demystify the term "biotechnology," which includes genetically engineered crops. These crops include a gene from another species of plant or bacteria. The new genes are chosen for a specific purpose, such as creating plants that are resistant to crop-destroying pests.

The vegetables at the farm are not genetically engineered. They are hybrids bred from two different varieties of that plant for specific traits such as flavor and shelf life.

Vegetables harvested throughout the season will be donated to a local soup kitchen or food bank that can accommodate fresh foods.

Preparations for the planting began in March. When the weather became warm between four and six weeks ago, actual work began on the land.

On hand to help plant the seeds on Thursday were two members of Future Farmers of America, Andre Hall and Daniel Wesley. Both attend Clyde C. Miller Academy in St. Louis. Also with them was Stephanie Mohr, a biotechnology instructor at the school, and Dannette Ward, a senior scientist at Monsanto.

The center and Monsanto haven't set dates for farm tours yet except at SciFest. However once the plants sprout, workers hope to show the farm to student camp groups that visit the Science Center.

Sarah Scully, a Beacon intern, is a journalism student at the University of Missouri at Columbia.