The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The New Face of “GMs”

The New Face of “GMs”

Shoppers and Trends

January 29, 2014

When people mention genetic modification or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in casual conversation, debates get heated. There’s so much controversy surrounding the idea of modifying food with science, and there are passionate advocates on either side of the argument. Those in favor tout the benefits of modifying a fruit or vegetable to improve its shelf life or nutritional value. Those against worry about the long term consequences of playing with nature, wondering how it will ultimately affect our health and the health of the environment.

Today’s food industry is grappling with the challenge of feeding many with many fewer resources, and there are other challenges to consider too, like how to transport food to consumers that won’t spoil or even lose flavor or nutritional value in the process. Then there’s the issue of meeting consumer demand for specific food qualities.

But here’s the thing. Virtually all foods have been genetically modified for millennia by the actions of mankind – changes in genes are the basis for things being different. For example, kale and broccoli are closely related but clearly they are not the same and these differences are genetic. Avoiding genetic changes would almost be like trying to avoid air, yet clearly this topic is emotional and filled with misperception.

And this is where Monsanto comes in (Monsanto sponsors Food Nutrition & Science from the Lempert Report but doesn't influence, edit or see the publication before it is sent out). A company who is best known for their genetically modified commodity crops like corn and soybeans (designed to resist their weed killing product Roundup), Monsanto has been both praised and criticized for their work in agriculture. Most recently, Monsanto has been the topic of conversation when it comes to the growing movement to require GMO labeling on foods (Whole Foods has plans to label all their GMO-containing products accordingly within the next five years, however, California’s Prop. 37, which would’ve required all GMO-containing products in the state to be labeled, didn’t pass). And as recently as last month, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against the company that would’ve prevented Monsanto from suing farmers for growing crops that contain Monsanto-patented seeds – even if the genetically modified seeds had been unintentionally introduced (through wind and pollination) to their fields. 

With all the negative press this “big ag” company gets, it’s easy to miss the leaps and bounds they are making in agriculture for the positive. While Monsanto does some GM crop development (they identify plants with desirable traits, isolate the genes that manifest in those traits, and then insert those genes into other plants with the hope of passing down the desired trait), GM is costly – and so it is only used to solve problems that can’t be solved through traditional breeding, and typically only in large acre crops capable of generating a financial return. But Monsanto has also always used the traditional breeding approach in every seed they sell. The traditional process is similar to crossbreeding methods from a hundred years ago – mixed in with some advanced scientific techniques. Typical crossbreeding is a method that crosses two plants together, and then waiting to see if the desired traits turn up in the next generation. Monsanto takes this concept a step further by crossbreeding two plants, then checking or "reading" the DNA of the offspring for the desirable traits, and then only continuing to breed the plants that contain the passed-down, desirable traits. And technically, these are not GM products.

“I know this can be confusing since we just discussed how virtually all food has been genetically modified. However, what people think of as ‘GM’ is when one takes one or a few genes from one source and inserts only these genes into the DNA of another plant. By the way, this process is natural since it occurs constantly across species barriers in nature and is a way life adapts to changes. Studying how God does it in nature is how we learned. Since traditional plant and animal breeding also changes genes, this also is ‘genetic modification’ in a sense, but most people associate traditional breeding with natural processes and so they don’t think of it as GM,” says David Stark, Monsanto’s VP of Global Trade Partnerships. “Traditional breeding is also the finishing step of GM technology since GM results in a single plant with a new trait, and this trait must be bred into the tens or hundreds of varieties that end up being sold to a farmer.”

Through advanced traditional breeding, Monsanto can develop products that contain all the benefits of the desired traits (i.e. crispier lettuce, broccoli with more vitamins, smaller peppers), without the weird science factor – there is no genetic engineering involved. In fact, some of these newly developed products are hitting supermarkets across the country soon. Frescada lettuce is still in its development stages so it won’t be available for a while. Beneforté broccoli is carried by several retailers today and is branded Beneforté on the bag. 

Perhaps one of the best parts of the development process is when people actually get to taste the new fruits and vegetables. Volunteers sample different products and rate them accordingly to a long list of traits. And Monsanto takes what consumers have to say seriously, even if that means going back to the drawing board. If the melon they are developing isn’t sweet enough, for example, then the scientists will go back into the process and try to identify those sweeter melon traits for the next round of crossbreeding. 

“We use the feedback to tweak what we’re looking for. We haven’t had anything yet that consumers didn’t like, but we’re looking for products that really stand out. Consumer feedback is extremely important since they cast the only votes that count,” says Stark.

Like Stark says, the whole process – from start to finish – is really about what consumers want. Products that don’t sell won’t have a place in the marketplace. And ultimately, in this consumer-driven landscape, it’s a question of whether or not consumers are willing to spend their grocery money on modified fruits and vegetables to get those traits in an onion or a broccoli head or a melon that they may desire on their plate. Retailers are important to this process as well, says Stark, because retailers decide if the products are a fit for their customers. Like any food product, sales determine the winners, and it becomes clear within the first several months if consumers like the product or not.

“I do believe as people understand that our goal is to constantly try and improve agriculture, and traditional breeding is our number one tool, that it will help win back some consumer trust,” adds Stark. “I think as long as we focus on eating enjoyment and value, and never compromise on safety, most consumers will appreciate the effort and the products.”