Apr 7, 2007Company Says It Will Not Turn to Biotech
When Monsanto announced Jan. 24 that it would buy Seminis, the first question on everyone’s mind was, “What kind of biotech vegetables can we look for and when?”
Monsanto Co., its name synonymous with biotechnology and looking for places to grow, prompted the question by offering to pay $1.4 billion for Seminis, said to be “the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.”
Combined, Monsanto will be the world’s biggest marketer of conventional and genetically modified seed, surpassing Dupont Co.
So why not Roundup-tolerant sweet corn?
If Monsanto has immediate plans to apply biotech methods to vegetables, it is close-mouthed about them.
“Our intention is to operate Seminis as a wholly-owned subsidiary,” said Lori Fisher, with Monsanto’s public affairs department. “They are the experts in the vegetable seed business, and Monsanto will largely stay focused on large-acre crops like corn, oilseeds and cotton. Seminis currently devotes the lion’s share of its R&D budget to breeding and (these efforts) are strongly linked to market opportunities and refined for specific markets. We don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.
“I would note that Seminis currently has a small level of biotech research underway, and we intend to maintain that. However, their greater focus has been improving quality and taste via seed breeding (vs. biotechnology). Both companies have excellent breeding programs for their respective crops, and once the transaction is complete we will explore opportunities to use the learnings and technology in the combined company’s research pipeline to accelerate the development of new products.”
Monsanto and Seminis are much alike in business philosophy. Both have grown enormously in the last decade by purchasing seed companies and both have launched creative new products. Both stress the value of what they do supporting economic growth for farmers, contributing to the health and nutrition of consumers on a global scale and protecting the world ecosystems by reducing environmental degradation and making the farmland base more productive.
Seminis controls 20 percent of the world market in vegetable seed and a third of the seed used to grow vegetables in American supermarkets. In the last two years, Seminis introduced the Bambino watermelon and teamed with the company Misionero to create Lettuce Jammers. Lettuce Jammers are wraps in which flour tortillas are replaced with a tough, foldable, no-carbohydrate lettuce (a cross between iceberg and romaine). Bambino is a personal-size watermelon.
Seminis sells 3,500 varieties and 60 species of vegetable seeds in 150 countries, using 12 brand names.
Monsanto has been built primarily on two genetic traits ¬– herbicide tolerance and insect resistance – placed in crops using biotech methods instead of conventional breeding. In 2003, there were 167.2 million acres of biotech crops in the world, 25 percent more than in 2002 and 40 times the acreage of 1996. Some 7 million farmers in 18 countries grow such genetically-modified crops.
The two traits are tolerance to the Monsanto herbicide Roundup and insect resistance conferred by a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). One allows weeds to be controlled using one contact herbicide; the other confers resistance to insects such as corn rootworm, European corn borer and cotton bollworm. These genes have been put into field corn, cotton, canola and soybeans. Roundup tolerant alfalfa will debut this year.
While use of these transgenic crops has grown swiftly, the record of adoption has been less than perfect. Farmers have accepted the agronomic traits readily and consumers have shown little reluctance to wear GM cotton clothes or consume genetically modified foods such as cooking oils and soy-based products. They also drink milk produced using GM-produced bovine somatrophin.
But will they eat GM vegetables?
Vegetable growers will recall the world’s first genetically-modified food was Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato, released in 1994. That was followed by Zeneca’s high-solids puree tomato. Both bombed in the marketplace. Flavr Savr was a tomato that resisted breakdown, so it could be picked ripe and shipped. Critics said, however, the tomato had little flavor to save and thus failed. But safety concerns also were mounting.
Later, Monsanto introduced NewLeaf potatoes containing the Bt gene to control Colorado potato beetles and leafhoppers. But, after reaching 55,000 acres, processors rejected it, and it, too ¬– another vegetable – failed.
So the question remains a good one – and Monsanto remains guarded in its answer – other than to say Seminis “makes a great platform” if market conditions are right to introduce genetically-modified vegetables in the future.