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Monsanto Is Trying To Modify Vegetables The Old-Fashioned Way: Crossbreeding

The giant of genetic modification is looking to natural methods to engineer onions that won’t make you cry, broccoli with more cancer-fighting power, and bell peppers that are the right size for a meal.

Think of a crops from Monsanto, and you might first think of something like controversial “Roundup Ready” corn, which the company genetically modified so it’d be resistant to Monsanto’s own brand of pesticides. But while it still will go full steam ahead on genetic modification, now Monsanto is also creating a new line of organic vegetables using an amped-up but natural version of old-fashioned crossbreeding techniques, as Wired reported in a recent feature.

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The new produce includes broccoli bred to have more antioxidants, onions that won’t make you cry, sweeter melons, and bell peppers that are smaller, so cooks won’t have leftovers after chopping them up for a meal.


In the past, crossbreeding was a long, slow process of trial and error. Monsanto’s process isn’t exactly instantaneous–a particular vegetable might take five to eight years of work before it’s ready to be planted in fields and sold in stores. But it’s still much speedier than before.

“It still takes time, because we have to take pollen from one plant and put it on the flower of another and let it go to seed. But then we can quickly analyze that seed, and that’s where we’ve really accelerated the process,” David Stark, the executive at Monsanto that leads the company’s new work in crossbreeding, says.

Rather than continually planting the seeds and waiting to see what happens, the scientists can use a machine that can scan 200,000 plant samples a week to map out the genes. Another machine can analyze tiny parts of seeds to figure out what traits they’ll have when the plants are grown.


“Probably the biggest advantage is the ability to add multiple characteristics at the same time,” Stark says. A melon could be bred simultaneously for sweetness, and juiciness, and color. That’s something that couldn’t happen with traditional crossbreeding.

The process also has clear advantages over genetic modification. For Monsanto, it’s an easy sell because it’s cheaper and more efficient; inserting a single gene with GM could cost $100 million and take 10 years.

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Since crossbreeding has been happening for millennia, it’s not regulated. That doesn’t mean it’s completely risk-free–some health advocates are concerned that Monsanto is breeding higher sugar content into some fruit, for example, and scientists also have to carefully monitor natural toxins in the produce as they work. But in the eyes of the FDA, these new-and-improved veggies are just like any you’d buy at the farmers market. And for consumers who still deeply distrust GM food, they’re likely to be much more welcome on store shelves.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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