Monsanto's new gambit: Fruits and veggies

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April 24, 2011 - 7:00pm

At the store this morning, you finally ditched the old "thump test" and picked out a perfectly ripe melon based on color alone. The broccoli in your fridge will supercharge the level of antioxidants your body produces, helping repel disease. And now, you're tearlessly chopping away at an onion while making your famous chili.

Fantasyland?

Not for long, according to Saint Louis based agri-business giant Monsanto, which is throwing its considerable weight behind developing new varieties of produce with added benefits for consumers.

"We're definitely at the first wave," said David Stark, a vice president at Monsanto who oversees the company's push into the checkout aisle.

With a catalog of seeds that now spans 4,000 vegetable and fruit varieties across 20 species, Monsanto researchers and executives said the potential to replicate desired traits goes well beyond what it could do in the past. The tearless EverMild onion and SweetPeak melon that turns light orange when it's ripe are just the opening acts.

"Monsanto is definitely putting its time and its energy behind these investments in fruits and vegetables," Stark said. "I've got tons of things coming."

So how much demand is there for superstar fruits and vegetables?

"Unlimited," said Kathy Means, vice president for the Produce Marketing Association. "When you hit the right mark consumers will buy it."

Between January 2010 and January 2011, fresh produce sales in the U.S. totaled $39.8 billion, up 3.5 percent from the previous 52-week period according to the Perishables Group, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks and analyzes retail sales data of fresh foods.

Tim Lloyd reports for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest including NET. For more stories about farm and food, check out its website

Numbers that big have scientists from university labs to established biotech companies like Switzerland-based Syngenta on the lookout for new varieties of fresh produce.

But harvesting a hit in the produce section involves more than just flavor and eye-appeal; shoppers also make choices based on the science behind their food, especially when it comes to tinkering with genetic code.

"Most U.S. consumers are unaware that many of the foods they eat already are derived from genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans," Means said.

At the same time, customers often balk at knowingly buying genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

"The perception is someone's been messing with my food," Means said. "Though the (U.S.) government and others have deemed these breeding techniques safe, marketers still have to deal with these consumer perceptions."

There's ongoing controversy and legal battles surrounding Monsanto's genetically modified row crops like alfalfa and sugar beets, and the European Union has been particularly reluctant to approve the sale of food that's had its DNA altered.

"Clearly there are a lot of people who have questions about biotechnology, not just (in the U.S.) but around the world," Stark said.

That's partly why Monsanto's plan for fresh fruits and vegetables differs from efforts like that of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a Canadian based company that grabbed headlines last year with a genetically modified apple that never turns brown.

Monsanto's efforts to cultivate new lines of consumer-focused produce do not involve direct manipulation of genetic code.

There's an economic incentive at work here, as well. Monsanto said it generally takes around 10 years and $100 million to make a genetically modified seed.

Advanced cross-breeding techniques can shorten that process to five or eight years, Stark said.

"It's significantly cheaper and with a different regulatory requirement, and let's face it, a different public perception," Stark said.

But it's not a one-size-fits-all technology.

Consider Monsanto's Vistive Gold soybeans, which received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2010 for testing in things like cooking oils that could eliminate the need for trans-fats.

The company said it tried to create the Vistive Gold seed with breeding but had to turn to genetic modification to provide farmers a seed with high yield potential.

Though it has longstanding breeding programs for row crops like corn, Monsanto for the most part left the fruit and vegetable seed business in the mid-1990s.

The agri-business heavyweight bought its way back in during the mid-2000s when it laid down a combined $2.2 billion to purchase seed companies Seminis and De Ruiter.

To get a return on its investment Monsanto's revenue plan extends from field to checkout aisle, and leans heavily on seed sales to farmers and royalty fees from retailers.

The challenge facing the company now is marketing new varieties like its tearless EverMild onion to shoppers and retailers alike.

"Yeah I've used them, they're very good," said Michael O'Brien, vice president of produce for Saint Louis based Schnuck Markets Inc. "The regular Spanish Onions they make you cry, and I hate to cry."

Schnuck Markets sold the EverMild through February of this year and O'Brien advises Monsanto on what his shoppers are looking for in the produce section.

"By working with us and us working so closely with the customers and doing consumer research we can provide what the customer wants." O'Brien said. "I think that's the difference."

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