Monsanto spreads roots into modified produce
Company plans to dominate market with altered seeds just as it has done with corn, soybean crops for farmers
By P.J. Huffstutter LOS ANGELES TIMES
P.J. HUFFSTUTTER LOS ANGELES TIMES
Martin Stoecker is one of the many Monsanto scientists working on modified crops. He specializes in corn at a center in Chesterfield, Mo.
CREVE COEUR, Mo. — Monsanto Co., whose genetically modified corn and soybeans have reshaped America’s heartland and rallied a nation of fast-food foes, wants to revolutionize the produce aisle.
The agribusiness giant already has stepped quietly into the marketplace with produce grown from its seeds. Grocery customers are chopping its onions that produce fewer tears, stir-frying its broccoli that decreases cholesterol and biting into tiny orange tomatoes that last longer on the shelf.
Soon, people will be thumping melons bred to be a single serving and shucking sweet corn genetically modified to enable farmers to spray the fields with the company’s weed killer, Roundup. To do this, it’s marrying conventional breeding methods with its vast technological resources to bring about changes in fruits and vegetables in months or years, rather than in decades.
- Monsanto’s goal: to dominate today’s $3 billion global market for produce seeds, much as it already has done with corn and soybeans.
“This isn’t a hobby. … We’re serious about it,” said Monsanto Chief Executive Hugh Grant, who expects the company’s vegetable-seed revenue to rival its $1.5 billion soybean business in the next decade.
The move has raised the hackles of some environmental and organic-farming groups that fear Monsanto ultimately will squeeze out smaller, independent vegetable-seed companies. They also worry that Monsanto will use technology to introduce revolutionary new genes into vegetable plants, just as its scientists have done in corn, soybeans and cotton.
“Clearly, the company wants to keep its options open,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the food and environmental program at Union of Concerned Scientists. “But I think they understand it’s a dicey proposition to move into (genetically engineered) foods that are widely consumed, rather than foods that are highly processed or used as animal feed.”
Monsanto officials said the opportunities for growth in the vegetable-seed market were too good to ignore. They said there were plenty of ways to use technology to design better-tasting vegetables, yet avoid the financial and consumer hurdles that inevitably would come with rolling out genetically engineered produce for a grocery store.
The amount of arable land worldwide is dwindling, while the world’s population is forecast to jump to more than 9 billion by 2050 from 7 billion today. Shifts in weather patterns have caused recent slumps in key crops. All this, in turn, has water-strapped countries eager to establish secure food supplies . Fast-growing economies, such as those in India and China, also are stepping up food imports to feed a burgeoning middle class.
Given these factors, Monsanto is making a multibillion-dollar bet that global farming conditions are going to get tougher, and farmers are going to clamor for their vegetable and fruit seeds. Revenue from Monsanto’s vegetable-seed business totaled $895 million in the company’s fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31. That’s 8 percent of its annual revenue, a figure the company hopes to grow steadily.
Monsanto moved aggressively into the vegetable business in 2005 when it bought seed powerhouse Seminis Inc. Since then, it has acquired four other vegetable-seed companies, opened 57 research centers worldwide and hired a slew of seed geneticists and agricultural researchers. Monsanto officials are quick to stress that they are not creating genetically modified crops. To create its Roundup Ready soybeans, for example, Monsanto developed seedlings with genes from a soil bacterium to help the plant to survive being sprayed with its herbicide.
For vegetables, scientists are looking for answers in the same, or similar, varieties of plants. So a trait in one pepper, such as flavor, might be meshed with the DNA of another pepper. But some scientists say this is genetic modification — just a different type. “What they really are doing is creating something where the probability is very low that it would have happened in nature without human intervention,” said R. Paul Thompson, director of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology.