Taxpayer-funded research should benefit the public, right? Sadly, that often isn’t the case when it comes to seeds. With a majority of the world’s seeds now owned by very few companies, it’s even more disturbing that publicly funded research on non-genetically engineered hybrids is resulting not in new varieties that are available to everyone, but in patented seeds controlled by big seed companies.
One of the biggest is Monsanto. Once known as a chemical company, Monsanto is now a global agricultural biotechnology powerhouse that specializes in genetically engineered (GMO) seeds and herbicides. The bulk of their GMO business comes from commodity crops like corn, soybeans and cotton. But the company hasn’t stopped there. Over the years they acquired a long list of seed companies, including many in the vegetable sector, buying up one of the biggest fruit and vegetable seed companies, Seminis Inc., in 2005.
Monsanto clearly has great big plans for the vegetable sector, including non-tear inducing onions, smaller bell peppers, sweeter melons and a super broccoli. Beneforté broccoli is a conventionally bred hybrid designed to be even more nutritious than conventional broccoli, with higher levels of cancer-fighting nutrients. First developed by the publicly funded Institute of Food Research and the somewhat government funded John Innes Centre, the product was turned over to Seminis Inc. for commercialization. It is currently only available in the UK but Monsanto expects to bring it to the U.S. within a couple of years.
Although super nutritious broccoli sounds benign enough, it’s the business model for distributing it that is so scary. The patenting of vegetable seeds will likely follow in the path of corn and soybeans, where genetic diversity and quality of seeds has been lost as consolidation has increased. And, loss of diversity in agriculture is the last thing we want to happen as climate change brings on more uncertainty in agricultural conditions like weather.
Not only could diversity in vegetable seeds be squandered, but consolidation in the vegetable seed market would mean fewer options for farmers and higher seed costs. Already, the cost of the new broccoli in the UK is a third more than regular broccoli, surely helping Monsanto to reach its future goal of increased profit from yet another sector of agriculture. And Monsanto’s track record in other types of seed indicates that it may only be a matter of time before the company employs genetic engineering techniques to “enhance” or “improve” fresh fruits and vegetables.
Instead of fueling agribusiness sales, traditionally bred seeds should be researched with public funding and released to the public domain to ensure fair access to seeds for produce farmers and affordable, healthy food for consumers.
For now, we can be thankful that Monsanto has dropped its bid to merge with another biotech behemoth, Syngenta, after Syngenta turned down Monsanto’s offer one too many times. This is good news since it prevents two massive companies from forming a gargantuan corporation with tremendous control over seed and chemical sales. But it’s clear that Monsanto still wants to grow, and the produce aisle is in their sights.