To many consumers, the name “Monsanto” is hard to stomach. The company has become associated with the evils of big agribusiness by creating potent pesticides, GM crops, and suing small farmers over intellectual property. In an effort to move their way into the produce aisle without the label of “Frankenfood” hovering over their lettuce heads, Monsanto is developing fruits and veggies without any artificial modification or gene splicing. However, the multi-billion dollar giant has some high-tech tools to speed up the traditional crossbreeding process.
Back in the old days of plant breeding, farmers would select plants with desirable traits, cross-pollinate them, wait for the offspring to develop, and repeat the entire process until a final worthy variety emerged. This method could take hundreds if not thousands of years, and companies built on making a profit don’t like to wait around for nature to mosey along on its own schedule.
Since Monsanto and other GM growers have received so much backlash from splicing in genes from other lifeforms into fruits and veggies that they have been banned in certain countries, the company decided to explore more organic alternatives. Through techniques they discovered while tinkering with GM crops, Monsanto relies on genetic marking that can identify chunks of DNA that produce a desired trait down to each nucleotide sequence. This helps them quickly find which plants they want to breed, and run scenarios through computer programs that guide them towards achieving the perfect melon, broccoli floret, or pepper. Instead of having to wait for a plant to develop, algorithms can cut down on time, error, and wasted resources.
Still, Monsanto is primarily in the business of making money, and regardless of whether a melon with a dramatically higher sugar content is truly healthy is not a top concern. As they incorporate high-tech gadgetry into established methods of agriculture, consumers will still have to evaluate the implications of their purchases. Do they support giant farms with limited, transportation-stable, and crowd-tested produce, or back smaller operations with more variety, shorter shelf life, and easily traceable lineage? With outcomes not just for the environment but for the future of agriculture, rural economies, and health, all eyes are on Monsanto and the success of their newest endeavor.