Monsanto is no one-trick GMO pony. Founded in 1901, the agricultural biotech company has fueled innovations in herbicides, pesticides, and ever-controversial genetically modified crops (GMOs).
But it may come as a surprise, even to people who are familiar with the $49 billion global giant, that Monsanto is also the world’s largest supplier of vegetable seeds.
Most corn and soybeans grown in the US contain the company’s patented seed traits. These days, Monsanto’s bread-and-butter GMO business is supplemented by its work on non-GMO vegetables, which cleared $801 million in net sales in the company’s 2016 fiscal year.
On a sprawling campus in Woodland, California, Monsanto chips away at making a juicier melon, a more shelf-stable onion, a tomato that doesn’t go limp in shipment, and other foods made using traditional breeding techniques augmented by high-tech tools.
Business Insider recently toured Monsanto’s global headquarters of vegetable R&D in Woodland to see how the company is working to create new kinds of produce.
In 2016, Monsanto was named the fifth-most hated company in America.
Source: The Harris Poll
Monsanto’s bad rap comes from its work in GMOs, which are made by taking genes from one species and inserting them into the DNA of another. GMOs are the source of a never-ending debate among food-safety activists — with Monsanto at the center.
But in Woodland, on a 212-acre campus surrounded by farms, Monsanto is focused on breeding vegetables the old fashioned way — no genetic modification required.
In 2005, Monsanto paid about $1 billion to acquire Seminis, a leading producer of fruit and vegetable seeds. Together, they formed the world’s largest seed company.
“It was a natural evolution,” says John Purcell, the global head of R&D for Monsanto’s vegetables division.
Last year, Monsanto’s vegetable seed business cleared $801 million in net sales — less than one-tenth of its revenue across GMOs, agrochemical products, and farming software solutions.
Though its vegetable division isn’t as profitable as its two key GMO crops (pesticide-resistant corn and soybeans), the company invested $100 million into vegetable research and development in 2016, Purcell says. Monsanto spends about $1.5 billion a year on R&D in total.
Globally, Monsanto breeds 18 crops, including tomatoes, melons, onions, carrots, broccoli, and lettuce, and has over 2,000 varieties across its vegetable portfolio.
People who grow food have long manipulated their crops to get better results. In conventional breeding, farmers cross two parent plants with specific traits, in the hopes of those characteristics passing from parent to offspring through later generations.
Today, plant breeders still rely on classic methodologies to develop products that mature on time, last on shelves, look pretty, and taste good. But the process is time-consuming and costly, requiring farmers to plant multiple generations to achieve the desired effects.