Although technology plays an important role at every stage in the fresh produce supply chain, the seed industry may tout more types of technology than any other.
Seed breeder-producers are now using marker-assisted breeding, genetic modification, the addition of nutrients to develop nutraceutical varieties and new technologies around food safety — and that’s just the development phase.
In the fresh produce category, very few commodities are bred using genetic modification.
In other categories, like field crops, and in other countries, GMOs are much more prevalent. Seed breeder-producers in the fresh produce category are still cautious about their use of GMO technology because consumers in the U.S. have not embraced it.
“There are a lot of efforts out across the globe to look at the possibility of using GMO in fresh vegetable products,” said Andy LaVigne, president and chief executive officer of the American Seed Trade Association. “In India and China, they use it strictly for production purposes.”
By and large, U.S. consumers don’t understand GMOs and aren’t ready to accept them, said Kelly Keithly, president of Keithly-Williams Seeds.
Lisa Zaglin, marketing director for Feasterville, Pa.-based Abbott & Cobb Inc.., said that attitude is changing.
“We believe the picture will change in those areas around the world that have the greatest economic need for higher quality and cheaper food sources,” Zaglin said. “GMO is not intrinsically unsafe, but until consumers have other economic reasons to accept them, they can afford to avoid them.”
Basel, Switzerland-based Syngenta AG’s Bt sweet corn remains the only large-scale use of GMO technology in fresh produce.
“The genetically modified sweet corn is focused at this time on the roadside market on the East Coast,” said Andreas Steiner, director of marketing for Syngenta. “Those growers produce an extremely high quality sweet corn that doesn’t have a very long shelf life. These varieties are extremely attractive to insects.”
The Bt sweet corn is bred with its own pesticide so that it can repel insects without extensive pesticide treatments. The company plans to unveil a new generation of the Bt sweet corn very soon, Steiner said.
Keithly-Williams Seeds distributes the Bt sweet corn, and Keithly said growers are very receptive to it, except when their customers demand non-GMO produce.
“Pretty much all (growers) are at some stage of looking at Bt sweet corn,” said Wayne Gale, president and co-owner of Thorold, Ontario-based seed distributor Stokes Seeds Ltd. “Genetically modifying is becoming more common in sweet corn. Syngenta is the only company with GMO sweet corn, but that will probably change at some point.”
Although there are no requirements for labeling GMO varieties as such, Gale said seed breeders are adamant about identifying the varieties for their customers. At the retail level, GMO fruits and vegetables can be sold without identification as a genetically modified variety.
Technologies like marketer-assisted breeding are being used across the seed industry to better identify characteristics of varieties in development in a shorter time span.
“We’ve done a lot with molecular markers,” said Mimi Ricketts, communication director for Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto Co. “Marker-assisted breeding allows breeders to pinpoint traits, kind of like a landmark, within a plant, and understand their function.”
Because of biotechnology over the last 15 or so years, breeders are able to develop traits that impact those characteristics they’re looking for, said Andy LaVigne, president and chief executive officer of the American Seed Trade Association.
“Whether it’s deeper red in a tomato or yellow in a squash, you can breed to that specifically in a much shorter time,” LaVigne said.
Before this technology, seed breeders would have to watch a variety all the way through its lifecycle to learn about its traits. With biotechnology and marker-assisted breeding, breeders can develop new varieties in about one-third of the time, LaVigne said.
“It used to be plant and pray,” LaVigne said. “Today, we use processes that are computer and lab-based.”
LaVigne said the marketplace will see even more improvements in these technologies, and seed breeders will be even more capable of breeding for color and taste qualities.
“As the technology continues to improve, you’ll probably see a shorter window between the demand of the marketplace and how a seed company can provide for it.”