WASHINGTON, January 27, 2014—In an apparent reaction to negative public opinion of GMO foods, Monsanto has turned to producing fruits and vegetables through the same conventional cross breeding used by farmers for millennia. However, Monsanto’s new lines of better-tasting and more nutritious products are anything but conventional.
As consumers increasingly shy away from genetically modified products, corporations like McDonald’s and Heinz Ketchup reject GMO ingredients and others like Whole Foods plan to label products containing GMOs, Monsanto is attempting to adapt by introducing new vegetable and fruit crops that are not genetically modified but have been cross bred to do remarkable things.
“Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does,” writes Ben Paynter in Wired. “The company whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionized the way we grow food—for better or worse.” And it appears that Monsanto is looking to revolutionize the agricultural game again.
By using equipment, knowledge and techniques previously aimed at producing GMO crops like the Flavr Savr tomato and the widely rejected GMO potato, Monsanto scientists have been able to cross-breed fruits and vegetables, in much the same way farmers have done since almost the birth of agriculture.
However, with vast resources, sophisticated equipment, computer models and genetic marking, Monsanto has been able to speed up and focus the cross breeding process in a way farmers never could. The result is fruits and vegetables that taste better, last longer, and have more desirable qualities than conventional produce.
Marketed under Monsanto subsidiary Seminis, produce like Frescada lettuce, BellaFina peppers, Beneforté broccoli, Melorange melons and EverMild onions may already be in the produce section of your local supermarket. Monsanto also has a watermelon in the works.
Frescada lettuce, already popular in Holland, stays fresh as long as iceberg, and is more sweet and crunchy than romaine lettuce. BellaFina peppers are smaller—one-third the size of regular peppers—to reduce waste. Bene-forté broccoli, bred with Brassica villosa, a broccoli ancestor discovered a decade ago in western Sicily, contains up to three times the amount of glucoraphanin, a compound that helps increase antioxidant levels.
Melorange melons, bred with a citron gene, are up to 30 percent sweeter than winter melons. Finally, as the name indicates, EverMild onions have lower levels of pyruvate, affecting pungency and lachrymatory factor, what makes you cry when you slice an onion.
Many are seeing Monsanto’s apparent change in focus away from GMO fruits and vegetables as proof of the power of consumer voice and a step forward for the non-GMO movement.
However, others are questioning Monsanto’s motives and whether this “superproduce” is actually healthier than conventional fruits and vegetables.
Many criticize Monsanto’s quest for flavor. Monsanto engineers have been focusing on finding ways to make their produce tastier, more flavorful, and therefore more attractive to consumers. A lot of this flavor, however, has to do with sugar content. For example, Monsanto’s Melorange melon and the still-in-the-works Summer Slice watermelon are bred to have a higher sugar content.
“Is that unhealthy?” asks Paynter. “No one really knows, but it’s certainly true that the law doesn’t require Monsanto to account for potential long-term effects…Nobody has ever tinkered with sugar levels the way Monsanto is attempting.”
Many believe that Monsanto’s motivation, in light of the public backlash against GMOs, is purely motivated by money.
The company says money is not its sole motivator, as making fruits and vegetables taste better will encourage individuals to eat more of them. “That’s good for society and, let’s face it, good for business,” said David Stark, head of Monsanto’s global trade division to Wired.
It is important to point out, as does Paynter, that “Monsanto is still Monsanto,” enforcing contracts that prohibit re-growing seeds and containing strict exclusion clauses for harvests that do not meet the company’s standards.
Additionally, this new line of produce does not necessarily signal a change on Monsanto’s main focus, which continues to be GMO commodity crops like corn and soybean, where the company is an undisputed world leader.
As consumers learn about Monsanto’s new non-GMO vegetables and as these products are rolled out onto local supermarket produce sections, many are confused. While technically not genetically engineered, these are not your regular fruits and vegetables.