In a new collaboration between the Monsanto Company and Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., plant breeding will be used to enhance the look, aroma, texture and taste of certain vegetables, but some natural food advocates say such "tinkering" is not necessary.
The five-year collaboration will focus on broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and spinach. The breeding is also expected to improve the vegetables' nutritional value, according to the companies.
"I'm skeptical," said Bill Freese, science and policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. "Especially with spinach and broccoli, they are already chock-full with nutrients. We don't need to tinker with them to make them more nutritious. What we need is more diverse diets."
Monsanto spokeswoman Riddhi Trivedi-St. Clair said no genetic engineering will be used in this collaboration between Dole and Monsanto, the makers of RoundUp, who also develop genetically-engineered crops to resist the herbicide.
"This collaboration is based on development through breeding, as opposed to genetic modification. It's very basic. Farmers have done it for centuries," she said. "There may be biotechnology with vegetables, eventually, but this collaboration won't have any genetic engineering."
The enhancements will be done through molecular marker assisted breeding. Basically, by hybridizing, Monsanto will study the genes through use of monecular markers to determine what makes vegetables taste better, look better, have better texture or contain the most nutrients. Plants with desirable qualities will be selected and bred until researchers find the right combination of characteristics.
Freese agrees the technique is nothing new, but basically a process that involves looking at the full set of genes associated with a crop and finding certain traits that can be used in the breeding process, but he still questions Monsanto's motives.
"When you have big, industrialized agri-business promising to produce more flavor and more nutrients, it goes against the entire history of food industrialization," he said. "The industry's tasteless tomato was bred to withstand longer transport and shelf life, not for taste or nutrition. Historically, that is not where their interests have been."
Freese added that Monsanto has promised super crops in the past, but has only produced crops that can tolerate herbicide and resistant pests.
But with its collaboration with Dole, the two companies say they will produce better tasting and more nutritional food that will strengthen the American diet. The companies joined forces because Dole is a large producer of fruits and vegetables and Monsanto brings a lot to the table in terms of research and development, Trivedi-St. Clair said.