User-friendly veg

September 2011

... and fruit...

Fruit n Veg
Photo by /charlene on Flickr

Up until now, the biotech industry has been busy inventing GM crops attractive to farmers and the food-processing industries. The end-consumer was expected to eat whatever this trio chose to give them, and health be damned.

Interestingly, there's a sea-change in the offing.

Between January 2010 and January 2011, fresh produce sales in the US totalled $39.8 billion, up 3.5% from the previous 52-week period (Perishables Group market research firm).

Numbers that big haven't escaped the notice of the biotech industry. Sensing an unlimited demand for the fresh stuff out there, Monsanto has been forking out billions of dollars for the last few years buying up seed companies.

It's catalogue of seeds now spans a staggering 4,000 vegetable and fruit varieties across 20 species.

For starters, consumers will find 'EverMild' tearless onions that don't make you cry and won' give you any excuse not to prepare your own meals. After that, expect SweatPeak melons which obligingly turn pink when they're ready to eat.

These unusual fruit and veggies from Monsanto are not GM. They've been conventionally bred using the science of natural genes to cut corners and speed up the breeding process.

The reasons given for this venture into specialty produce, represent an admission of what anti-GM campaigners have been saying for two decades, that genetic transformation is impractical and inefficient:
  • GM is slow: it takes 10+ years to make GM seed; using modern breeding, it takes 5-8 years
  • GM is expensive: time is money and 10 years of development for GM seed translates into $100 million; modern breeding is “significantly cheaper” (Monsanto Vice President)
  • GM regulatory requirements are a nightmare: legal challenges have surrounded every aspect of GM crops from government to farm to fork; then there's compensation to be paid, costs of policing ...
  • GM has a problem with “let's face it ... public perception”: “Clearly there are a lot of people who have questions about biotechnology, not just (in the U.S.) but around the world” (Monsanto Vice President). “The perception is someone's been messing with my food. Though the (U.S.) government and other have deemed these breeding techniques safe, marketers still have to deal with these consumer perceptions. (Produce Marketing Association)
  • GM sales depend on public ignorance: most US consumers re unaware of the GM on their plate, but this looks like it is about to change (see AWAKENING THE AMERICAN LION – June 2011 and GM LABELLING MILESTONE IN US – September 2011). You can't fool all of the people all of the time.
  • GM is limited: only conventional breeding can increase yields; artificial DNA introduces intrinsic weaknesses and side-effects.

Is the leopard changing its spots, or has Monsanto's keen business sense just sniffed out a niche market in novelty produce even more lucrative than GM, and with better long-term prospects?

If you're feeling really sceptical you might just wonder if Monsanto has admitted to itself that the writing is on the wall for GM crops which accumulate toxic herbicides or generate indigestible, potentially toxic, proteins (see GM PESTICIDES INSIDE YOU – April 2011)

But, watch out for conventionally-bred novelty foods with added (patented) genes for pest- and herbicide-resistance.

  • Tim Lloyd, Monsanto's new gambit: fruits and veggies, Harvest, 8.04.11
  • Monsanto admits non-GM is faster and cheaper,, 18.05.11

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