Monsanto is best-known for its work on genetically modified crops and pesticides. In 2014, it was ranked the third most-hated company in the world by Nielsen, largely because of its work in this space.
But as Monsanto CTO Robb Fraley explained to Tech Insider, that’s just part (albeit a huge part) of the company’s portfolio. The agriculture giant made a big investment in data science with its purchase of Climate Corporation a few years ago, and perhaps more surprisingly to most people, it’s also leaning heavily on traditional breeding — that is, non-GMO crops.
Monsanto started buying seed companies in the 1990s, and later became a giant in the vegetable seed business with its purchase of Seminis, the world’s biggest vegetable seed company, in 2005. These days, Monsanto’s seeds make up 23% of the global vegetable seed market.
The company’s non-GMO crop research happens on a California campus that’s filled with greenhouses, test vegetable plots, and lab equipment.
“The biggest part of the business is tomatoes and peppers. Most of it is sophisticated molecular breeding. We’ve been able, for example, to identify the genes responsible for tomato sweetness and taste. In other cases we can change the colours of a vegetable,” says Fraley.
You can already find plenty of non-GMO fruits and vegetables made using Monsanto research in your grocery store. But since growers aren’t always required to use Monsanto’s branding, you might not know you’re eating it.
For example, farmers who grow the recently-released Ever Summer melon — Monsanto’s attempt at a winter melon that’s moderately sweet and just firm enough to be shipped long distances — are encouraged to use the branding, but not forced to do it. This allows the company to avoid turning off shoppers with an aversion to the Monsanto/Seminis brand.
The technology is only getting better. When I visited the California campus in 2015, representatives told me that Monsanto spends more money on plant breeding tools — handheld gadgets that can test traits like
sugar, acidity, and aroma — than any other company.
“What we’ve been able to do with breeding tools is phenomenal,” says Fraley.
You can see a full list of Monsanto’s traditionally-bred fruits and vegetables here. There’s everything from a tomato containing extra antioxidants (it’s known as “Health Kick”) to a watermelon with firm flesh that reduces “juice leakage.”
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