While the use of genetically modified organisms is still a rarity in the fresh produce industry, it’s definitely an area that could see growth in the near future.
GMO products are used heavily in field grains, and some of that technology has spilled over into fresh produce items, such as sweet corn, grown in a similar way.
Basel, Switzerland-based Syngenta’s only genetically modified seed for fresh produce usage is Attribute sweet corn, which incorporates Bt technology to reduce the number of pesticide sprays corn needs during the growing season.
Attribute is used heavily in Midwestern states, where pests are heavy, especially early and late in the season, when fewer crops are growing, making bug food more scarce.
“Attribute is our only GMO seed for fresh, but that is an example of a technology that, in the long-term, needs to find wings,” said Dan Burdett, president of vegetable seeds for North America for Syngenta.
Attribute is marketed through Rogers Brand Vegetable Seeds, Boise, Idaho, a Syngenta company.
Monsanto Co., St. Louis, plans to have a genetically modified sweet corn on the market by 2012 that is designed to be triple-stacked, insect-resistant and Round-up tolerant.
Feasterville, Pa.-based Abbott & Cobb Inc. is introducing its genetic type SuperSpeedWare, which will be branded under the Summer SWeet brand of sweet corn the company already offers. The product is 100% natural and features a stronger germ.
“Many consumers around the world are still not willing to accept GMO,” said Art Abbott, president and chief executive officer. “Some day, they may.”
For the time being, Abbott & Cobb continues to develop and produce through conventional plant breeding and seed growing techniques, Abbott said.
“Today, the majority of our vegetable R&D is focused on conventional breeding and advanced breeding technologies such as molecular markers,” said David Stark, vice president of consumer traits for Monsanto. “However, we are studying the opportunity for biotech use in vegetables and see significant promise.”
Biotechnology in agriculture has tremendous promise to create sustainable improvement in quality, nutrition and productivity with better use of resources and less reliance on pesticides, Stark said.
Burdett said there is a lot of work to be done in the area of plant science to figure out how to feed a growing population on the same or a smaller amount of land. GMO is part of that plant science.
“The whole broad world of plant science includes that technology, and there is a lot of work going on in that area for sure,” Burdett said. “But GMO is a small subset of a lot of biotechnology work going on.”
The bigger challenge involves the bigger story about global need, he said.
“Plant science and plant technology have to be running full steam, and biotechnology has to be part of the answer,” Burdett said.
The challenge with biotechnology, Stark said, is that it is slow and expensive, making it especially difficult to apply in smaller crops. In 1996, when now Monsanto-owned Seminis developed its GMO squash, its only GMO fresh produce product, things were different.
“Today it’s not just safety testing. It’s product introduction and follow-through. It takes a lot to launch and manage a biotech trait,” Stark said.
Stark said he could see the technology applied to tomatoes and onions down the line.
The industry may have to be careful, though, about how it handles perception of GMO use.
“So let’s say in the next 10 years we develop a tomato that you can store in the fridge and it won’t lose its flavor. Does the industry want to go back then and tell consumers it’s good?” Stark said. “It tends to paint people in a box.”