- 07 September 2012
Doug Heath, a tomato breeder for Monsanto Co. (MON), offers visitors juicy slices of Cherokee Purple, a delicate variety with a sweetness and acidity he’s trying to replicate in hardier commercial fruit. “We want to see these in the stores more than one month a year,” Heath told visitors this month at his research plot in Woodland, California. He gave out the tomato slices at Field Days, an annual gathering for farmers and distributors to see new crops from Monsanto’s Seminis vegetable seed unit.
Monsanto is accelerating its push to identify thousands of genetic markers in fruits and vegetables as it brings the tools of biotechnology to conventional breeding, giving Heath the ability to select for everything from taste to disease- resistance. It’s also allowing the world’s biggest (MON) vegetable- seed producer to develop new varieties in two to four years, down from as many as 10 years. Using the markers is like having “X-ray glasses” that let breeders peer inside a leaf clipping or seed to find what will grow, Heath said.
His efforts are gathering momentum at the St. Louis-based company, which bought Seminis for $1.4 billion in 2005 and is looking to expand its market share. Monsanto has identified about 5,000 genetic markers in peppers, more than 4,000 in tomatoes and thousands more in melons, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers and beans, according to an Aug. 14 investor presentation. The company plans to identify more vegetable markers this year than in the past 20 years combined.