Carst and Walker
Monsanto vegetables

Monsanto is going organic in a quest for the perfect veggie

Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does. So it’s not particularly surprising that the loved-hated company is introducing novel strains of familiar food crops that are endowed with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually see in the produce section.

The company whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionised the way we grow food — for better or worse. Activists revile it for such practices as suing farmers who regrow licensed seeds or filling the world with Roundup-resistant super­weeds.

Then there’s Monsanto’s reputation — scorned by some, celebrated by others — as the foremost purveyor of genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soybeans with DNA edited in from elsewhere, designed to have qualities nature didn’t quite think of.

So it’s not particularly surprising that the company is introducing novel strains of familiar food crops, invented at Monsanto and endowed by their creators with powers and abilities far beyond what you usually see in the produce section.

The lettuce is sweeter and crunchier than romaine and has the stay-fresh quality of iceberg. The peppers come in miniature, single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers. The broccoli has three times the usual amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps boost antioxidant levels.

“Grocery stores are looking in the produce aisle for something that pops, that feels different,” says Monsanto executive, Kenny Avery. “And consumers are looking for the same thing.” If he’s right, they’ll know soon enough. Frescada lettuce, BellaFina peppers, and Bene­forté broccoli  — cheery brand names trademarked to an all-but-anonymous Mon­santo subsidiary called Seminis — are rolling out at supermarkets across the US.

But here’s the twist: The lettuce, peppers, and broccoli — plus a melon and an onion, with a watermelon soon to follow — aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding, the same tech­nology that farmers have been using to optimise crops for millennia.

That doesn’t mean they are low tech, exactly. Avery’s division is drawing on Monsanto’s accumulated scientific know-how to create vegetables that have all the advantages of genetically modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods ick factor.

And that’s a serious business advantage. Despite a gaping lack of evidence that genetically modified food crops harm human health, consumers have shown a marked resistance to purchasing GM produce (even as they happily consume pro­ducts derived from genetically modified commodity crops). Stores like Whole Foods are planning to add GMO disclosures to their labels in a few years. State laws may mandate it even sooner.

But those requirements won’t apply to Monsanto’s new superveggies. They may be born in a lab, but technically they’re every bit as natural as what you’d get at a farmers’ market. Keep them away from pesticides and transport them less than 100 miles and you could call them organic and locavore too.

Now, breeding new strains of plants is nothing new. Quite the opposite, in fact — optimising plants for yield, flavour, and other qualities defined the earliest human civilisations. But for all the millennia since some proto-farmer first tried it, successfully altering plants has been a game of population roulette. Basically, farmers breed a plant that has a trait they like with other plants they also like. Then they plant seeds from that union and hope the traits keep showing up in subsequent generations.

Monsanto produce
Monsanto’s new veggies are sweeter, crunchier, and more nutritious — with none of the “Frankenfoods” ick factor.

They’re working with qualities that a biologist would call, in aggregate, phenotype. But phenotype is the manifestation of genotype, the genes for those traits. The roulettelike complications arise because some genes are dominant and some are recessive.

Taking a tree with sweet fruit and crossing it with one that has big fruit won’t necessarily get you a tree with sweeter, bigger fruit. You might get the opposite — or a tree more vulnerable to disease, or one that needs too much water, and on and on. It’s a trial-and-error guessing game that takes lots of time, land, and patience.

At the same time as Monsanto was focusing on GM commodity crops, it was also doing exciting work in creating brand-new vegetables for consumers. Genetically modifying consumer crops is a non-starter, as it’s inefficient and expensive. It’s estimated that adding a new gene takes roughly 10 years and $100-million to go from a product concept to regulatory approval.

And inserting genes one at a time doesn’t necessarily produce the kinds of traits that rely on the inter­actions of several genes. Monsanto knew it couldn’t just genetically modify its way to better produce; it had to breed great vegetables to begin with.

In the process of learning how to engineer chemical and pest resistance into corn, researchers at Monsanto had learned to read and understand plant genomes — to tell the difference between the “dogshit germplasm and the gold”. And they had some nifty technology that allowed them to predict whether a given cross would yield the traits they wanted.

The key was a technique called genetic marking. It maps the parts of a genome that might be associated with a given trait, even if that trait arises from multiple genes working in concert. Researchers identify and cross plants with traits they like and then run millions of samples from the hybrid — just bits of leaf, really— through a machine that can read more than 200,000 samples per week and map all the genes in a particular region of the plant’s chromosomes….. Read the full article

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