Doug Heath, a tomato breeder for Monsanto Co., offers visitors juicy slices of Cherokee Purple, a delicate variety with a sweetness and acidity he’s trying to replicate in hardier commercial fruit.
“We want to see these in the stores more than one month a year,” Heath told visitors this month at his research plot in Woodland, California. He gave out the tomato slices at Field Days, an annual gathering for farmers and distributors to see new crops from Monsanto’s Seminis vegetable seed unit.
Monsanto is accelerating its push to identify thousands of genetic markers in fruits and vegetables as it brings the tools of biotechnology to conventional breeding, giving Heath the ability to select for everything from taste to disease-resistance. It’s also allowing the world’s biggest vegetable-seed producer to develop new varieties in two to four years, down from as many as 10 years. Using the markers is like having “X-ray glasses” that let breeders peer inside a leaf clipping or seed to find what will grow, Heath said.
His efforts are gathering momentum at the St. Louis-based company, which bought Seminis for $1.4 billion in 2005 and is looking to expand its market share. Monsanto has identified about 5,000 genetic markers in peppers, more than 4,000 in tomatoes and thousands more in melons, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers and beans, according to an Aug. 14 investor presentation. The company plans to identify more vegetable markers this year than in the past 20 years combined.
Syngenta AG, the second-biggest vegetable seed producer, and other companies are also identifying the markers. Syngenta has more than 250,000 genetic markers to help with vegetable breeding, including about 50,000 in melon, 25,000 in tomato and 10,000 in peppers, according to an e-mail from Paul Minehart, a spokesman for the Basel, Switzerland-based company.
Monsanto is unrivaled in integrating genetic data into breeding decisions, Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley said in an interview. The company declined to disclose its total vegetable markers.
Using genetic markers to guide breeding decisions will improve the appeal and nutrition of tomatoes and 20 other fruits and vegetables, helping people eat healthier and propelling vegetables to Monsanto’s third-most-profitable business, surpassing cotton in the next three years, Fraley said.
“The markers have fundamentally changed what we do,” he said. “We can, for the first time, address complex disease-resistance and flavor characteristics.”
The company, which added greenhouse-grown produce with its 2008 purchase of De Ruiter Seeds, is looking to buy more vegetable seed producers, Fraley said.
The first varieties created by Monsanto since entering the vegetable-seed business eight years ago are now coming to market. Summer Slice watermelon has flesh similar to an apple so it remains firm after being cut for display. The company said its Beneforte broccoli improves taste and nutrition, its Frescada lettuce has the mild taste of iceberg lettuce with the nutrition of Romaine and its Ever Mild onion is sweet like a Vidalia and available year round.
Other varieties are meant to help growers, such as Easy Harvest broccoli that stands taller in the field for mechanical collection, and sweet corn that’s genetically modified to kill insects and tolerate applications of Roundup herbicide.
Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group that opposes genetic engineering, has raised alarms about the products. It sponsored petitions urging retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. not to stock genetically engineered vegetables. Monsanto’s sweet corn “hasn’t been tested for human safety,” according to one online petition.
The company says engineered seeds have been used since 1996 and “there has not been one documented case of biotech crops being unsafe for humans or the environment,” according to its website. Monsanto said it invests 95 percent of its vegetable-research in conventional breeding and 5 percent on genetic engineering.
Monsanto rose 0.3 percent to $87.69 in New York. The shares have risen 25 percent this year. Syngenta has advanced 22 percent in Zurich.
Speeding development of new seed varieties should propel Monsanto’s market share in seven fruits and vegetables to more than 30 percent by 2017, from 23 percent, the company said in the August presentation. Genetic markers will allow Monsanto to add one new tomato gene for disease-resistance in each of the next five years, compared with two added by the industry over the past two decades.
A lab on Monsanto’s Woodland site annually analyzes the genetic makeup of 7 million vegetable samples. The lab can identify genes associated with flavor, appearance, texture and nutrition, as well as traits for disease-resistance and susceptibility.
It’s a complex undertaking. Most of the taste perception in tomatoes, for instance, is driven by the more than 400 “volatiles” that comprise the fruit’s odor, said Sekhar Boddupalli, global consumer research and development lead.
The sensory research is coordinated with Monsanto scientists deployed last year to the David H. Murdock Research Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, Fraley said.
Chow-Ming Lee, Monsanto’s sensory scientist, has convened 160 blind taste tests since last year to identify the attributes that lead consumers to prefer one type of melon, broccoli or tomato over another. The data is traced to specific genes and used to inform breeding decisions.
As recently as five years ago, Monsanto had genetic markers for only a few tomato traits. When Heath started working in 1993 for a predecessor company, there wasn’t even a computer.
“We’re breeding in a different way now,” Heath said. “It’s so powerful.”