In a windowlessbasement room decorated with photographs of farmers clutching freshly harvested vegetables, three polo-shirt-and-slacks-clad Monsanto executives, all men, wait for a special lunch. A server arrives and sets in front of each a caprese-like salad—tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, lettuce—and one of the execs, David Stark, rolls his desk chair forward, raises a fork dramatically, and skewers a leaf. He takes a big, showy bite. The other two men, Robb Fraley and Kenny Avery, also tuck in. The room fills with loud, intent, wet chewing sounds.
Eventually, Stark looks up. “Nice crisp texture, which people like, and a pretty good taste,” he says.
“It’s probably better than what I get out of Schnucks,” Fraley responds. He’s talking about a grocery chain local to St. Louis, where Monsanto is headquartered. Avery seems happy; he just keeps eating.
The men poke, prod, and chew the next course with even more vigor: salmon with a relish of red, yellow, and orange bell pepper and a side of broccoli. “The lettuce is my favorite,” Stark says afterward. Fraley concludes that the pepper “changes the game if you think about fresh produce.”
Changing the agricultural game is what Monsanto does. The company whose name is synonymous with Big Ag has revolutionized the way we grow food—for better or worse. Activists revile it for such mustache-twirling 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. Stark’s department, the global trade division, came up with all of them.
“Grocery stores are looking in the produce aisle for something that pops, that feels different,” Avery says. “And consumers are looking for the same thing.” If the team is 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 optimize crops for millennia. That doesn’t mean they are low tech, exactly. Stark’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.
John Francis Queeny formed Monsanto Chemical Works in 1901, primarily to produce the artificial sweetener saccharin. Monsanto was the family name of Queeny’s wife, Olga. It was a good time for chemical companies. By the 1920s, Monsanto had expanded into sulfuric acid and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, a coolant used in early transformers and electric motors, now more famous as a pernicious environmental contaminant. The company moved on to plastics and synthetic fabrics, and by the 1960s it had sprouted a division to create herbicides, including the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange. A decade later, Monsanto invented Roundup, a glyphosate-based weed killer that farmers could apply to reduce overgrowth between crops, increasing productivity. In the early 1990s, the company turned its scientific expertise to agriculture, working on novel crop strains that would resist the effects of its signature herbicide.
Now, breeding new strains of plants is nothing new. Quite the opposite, in fact—optimizing plants for yield, flavor, and other qualities defined the earliest human civilizations. 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.
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.
The idea behind genetic modification is to speed all that up—analyze a species’ genes, its germplasm, and manipulate it to your liking. It’s what the past three decades of plant biology have achieved and continue to refine. Monsanto became a pioneer in the field when it set out to create Roundup-resistant crops. Stark joined that effort in 1989, when he was a molecular biology postdoc. He was experimenting with the then-new science of transgenics.
Monsanto was focusing on GM commodity crops, but the more exciting work was in creating brand-new vegetables for consumers. For example, Calgene, a little biotech outfit in Davis, California, was building a tomato it called the Flavr Savr. Conventional tomatoes were harvested while green, when they’re tough enough to withstand shipping, and then gassed with ethylene at their destination to jump-start ripening. But the Flavr Savr was engineered to release less of an enzyme called polygalacturonase so that the pectin in its cell walls didn’t break down so soon after picking. The result was a tomato that farmers could pick and ship ripe.
In the mid-1990s, Monsanto bought Calgene and reassigned Stark, moving him from Roundup research to head a project that almost accidentally figured out how to engineer flavor into produce. He began tinkering with genes that affect the production of ADP-glucose pyrophosphorylase, an enzyme that correlates to higher levels of glycogen and starch in tomatoes and potatoes. Translation: more viscous ketchup and a French fry that would shed less water when cooked, maintaining mass without absorbing grease. And he succeeded. “The texture was good,” Stark says. “They were more crisp and tasted more like a potato.”
They never made it to market. Aside from consumer backlash, the EPA deemed StarLink corn, a new biotech strain from another company, unfit for human consumption because of its potential to cause allergic reactions. Another genetically modded corn variety seemed to kill monarch butterflies. Big food conglomerates including Heinz and McDonald’s—which you might recognize from their famous tomato and potato products—abandoned GM ingredients; some European countries have since refused to grow or import them. Toss in the fact that production costs on the Flavr Savr turned out to be too high and it’s easy to see why Monsanto shut down Stark’s division in 2001. Large-scale farms growing soy or cotton, or corn destined for cattle feed—or corn syrup—were happy to plant GM grain that could resist big doses of herbicide. But the rest of the produce aisle was a no-go.
Furthermore, genetically modifying consumer crops proved to be inefficient and expensive. Stark estimates 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. Well before their veggie business went kaput, Monsanto knew it couldn’t just genetically modify its way to better produce; it had to breed great vegetables to begin with. As Stark phrases a company mantra: “The best gene in the world doesn’t fix dogshit germplasm.”
What does? Crossbreeding. Stark had an advantage here: 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.
They had more toys too. In 2006, Monsanto developed a machine called a seed chipper that quickly sorts and shaves off widely varying samples of soybean germplasm from seeds. The seed chipper lets researchers scan tiny genetic variations, just a single nucleotide, to figure out if they’ll result in plants with the traits they want—without having to take the time to let a seed grow into a plant. Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.
And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome. (They could, and in fact sometimes do, look at their crosses by engineering a plant as a kind of beta test. But those aren’t intended to leave the lab.) Stark and his colleagues realized that they could use these technologies to identify a cross that would have highly desirable traits and grow the way they wanted. And they could actually charge more for it—all the benefits of a GMO with none of the stigma. “We didn’t have those tools the first time around in vegetables,” Stark says.
Also in 2005, Monsanto bought the world’s largest vegetable seed company, Seminis. Think of it as a wholesale supplier of germplasm. It turned out Seminis came with another benefit: something in the pipeline that Stark could turn into his division’s first test product. A decade prior, swashbuckling plant scientists had discovered on the limestone cliffs of western Sicily a strain of Brassica villosa, ancestor of modern broccoli. Thanks to a gene called MYB28, this weedy atavist produced elevated levels of glucoraphanin. Stark’s team bred further enhancements to that antioxidant-increasing compound into a more familiar-looking plant—good old broccoli.
In 2010 Monsanto started test-marketing the new crop, calling it Beneforté. The strategy was coming together: enhanced premium veggies for an elite buyer. Beneforté broccoli came in a bag of ready-to-cook florets—so convenient!—labeled with a bar graph telegraphing how its antioxidant levels stacked up against regular broccoli and cauliflower. It sold, but Monsanto researchers knew that future veggies would need a more compelling hook. Everybody already knows that they’re supposed to eat their broccoli.
Stark’s group had one last angle: flavor. In produce, flavor comes from a combination of color, texture, taste (which is to say, generally, sweetness or lack of bitterness), and aroma. But the traits that create those variables are complicated and sometimes nonobvious.
For example, Monsanto created an onion—the EverMild—with reduced levels of a chemical called lachrymatory factor, the stuff that makes you cry. That wasn’t too hard. But making a sweet winter version of a cantaloupe took more effort. Stark’s team first found genes that helped a French melon keep from spoiling after harvest. Through crossbreeding, they learned to keep those genes turned on. Now farmers could harvest the melon ripe, and it stayed ripe longer with full aroma. But the researchers didn’t stop there—they also made sure the fruit had the gene for citron, a molecule associated with fruity and floral aromas. They called the final product the Melorange.
Figuring out these relationships takes place at a sophisticated sensory and genetics lab perched amid hundreds of acres of experimental farmland in the rural, sun-scorched outskirts of Woodland, a farming town in California’s ag belt. White-coated scientists hover amid tubs full of fruits and vegetables in a lab, probing them with the intensity of forensic investigators. Penetrometers measure squishiness. Instruments called Brix meters track sugar content. Gas spectrographs, liquid chromatographs, and magnetic resonance imagers isolate specific aromatic molecules and their concentrations.
Eventually volunteers eat the experimental foods and give feedback. In one tasting session, sensory scientist Chow-Ming Lee passes out five plastic cups filled with bite-size squares of cantaloupe, harvested from outside and brought in from a store, to a dozen melon growers and distributors. Each cup is labeled with a three-digit code. Score sheets have two columns: “Sweet/Flavorful” and “Juicy.”
After sampling each batch and writing down their assessments, the participants punch their scores into devices that connect to Lee’s laptop, which plots the room’s general sentiment on a screen along a four-quadrant grid ranging from low to high flavor on one axis and low to high juiciness on the other. None of the melons manage to crack the upper corner of the far right quadrant, the slot Monsanto hopes to fill: a sweet, juicy, crowd-pleasing melon.
In the adjoining fields a few hours later, Monsanto breeders Jeff Mills and Greg Tolla conduct a different kind of taste test. There they slice open a classic cantaloupe and their own Melorange for comparison. Tolla’s assessment of the conventional variety is scathing. “It’s tastes more like a carrot,” he says. Mills agrees: “It’s firm. It’s sweet, but that’s about it. It’s flat.” I take bites of both too. Compared with the standard cantaloupe, the Melorange tastes supercharged; it’s vibrant, fruity, and ultrasweet. I want seconds. “That’s the shtick,” Mills says.
Of course, sweeter fruit isn’t necessarily better fruit, and it’s perhaps no surprise that critics of Monsanto are unconvinced that this push toward non-GM products represents good corporate citizenship. They question whether these new fruits and vegetables will actually be as healthy as their untweaked counterparts. In 2013, for example, consumer-traits researchers prototyped their Summer Slice watermelon, designed with a more applelike texture (to cut down on the dreaded watermelon-juice-dripping-down-your-chin phenomenon that has scarred so many childhoods). But the denser texture made it taste less sweet. So Stark’s team is breeding in a higher sugar content.
Is that unhealthy? No one really knows, but it’s certainly true that the law doesn’t require Monsanto to account for potential long-term effects. (The FDA considers all additive-free, conventionally bred produce to be safe.) Nobody has ever tinkered with sugar levels the way Monsanto is attempting; it’s essentially an experiment, says Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist and president of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. “The only result they care about is profit.”
Monsanto, of course, denies that charge. Make fruit taste better and people will eat more of it. “That’s good for society and, let’s face it, good for business,” Stark says.
Monsanto is still Monsanto. The company enforces stringent contracts for farmers who buy its produce seeds. Just as with Roundup Ready soybeans, Monsanto prohibits regrowing seeds from the new crops. The company maintains exclusion clauses with growers if harvests don’t meet the standards of firmness, sweetness, or scent—pending strict quality-assurance checks. “The goal is to get the products recognized by the consumer, trusted, and purchased,” Stark says. “That’s what I really want. I want to grow sales.”
But he gets coy about the company’s longer-term agenda. “I’m not sure we ever really projected what kind of market share we’ll have,” he says. The vegetable division cleared $821 million in revenue in 2013, a significant potential growth area for a $14 billion-a-year company that leans heavily on revenue from biotech corn and soy. More telling is the company’s steady stream of acquisitions, which suggests a continuing commitment to the produce aisle. It owns a greenhouse in the Guatemalan mountains, where the dry, warm air allows three or four growth cycles a year—great for research. In 2008 Monsanto bought De Ruiter, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse seed companies, and in 2013 it picked up Climate Corporation, a big-data weather company that can provide intel on what field traits might be needed to survive global warming in a given region. Mark Gulley, an analyst at BGC Financial, says the company is following the “virtuous cycle” approach; it spends heavily on marketing and pours much of the proceeds back into R&D.
The new crops keep coming. In 2012 Monsanto debuted Performance Series Broccoli, a conventionally bred line that stands taller, enabling cheaper, faster mechanical harvesting as opposed to handpicking. Breeders are also growing watermelons with the green-and-white-striped rind patterns familiar to US consumers but also the tiger-striped variety favored in Spain and the oval jade version loved by Australians. “It’s supposed to remind you of where you grew up,” says Mills, the Monsanto melon breeder. That suggests the division plans to be a player in the trillion-dollar global produce market.
For his part, Stark hopes that when Monsanto’s affiliation with some of its best sellers becomes more widely known, the company might win back some trust. “There isn’t a reputation silver bullet, but it helps,” he says. In that basement dining room at Monsanto headquarters, he waxes rhapsodic about the lettuce long after he has cleaned his plate. During a recent trip to Holland, where Frescada is gaining popularity, Stark saw folks peeling leaves straight off the heads and munching them without dressing, like extra-large potato chips. “People just ate it like a snack, which was not the intent, but …” Stark trails off and looks around the room. His napkin is still on his lap. He’s savoring the potential.