Monsanto has set its sights on global vegetable dominance and its lead contender is Beneforté broccoli, which is described as “even more of a good thing.” The agribusiness giant is hedging its enormous bets placed on a corn-and-soy-driven business as consumer demand for healthier and less processed foods assails CPGs in all food and beverage categories from soda to cereal.
Beneforté is bred with higher levels of a nutrient our bodies use to fight cancer and cholesterol. According to Monsanto: “Beneforté broccoli boosts your body’s antioxidant enzyme levels at least two times more compared to other leading broccoli varieties. Each serving of Beneforté broccoli, a collaboration of Seminis Vegetable Seeds, Inc. and Apio, Inc., naturally contains 2-3 times the phytonutrient glucoraphanin as a single serving of other leading broccoli varieties. Glucoraphanin naturally boosts the body’s antioxidant enzyme levels, and these enzymes help maintain the antioxidant activity of vitamins A, C and E in your body. These antioxidant vitamins protect your body from damage by free radicals and other environmental stresses.”
Beneforté arrived in the UK and US in 2011; it is currently available at 10 grocery chains in the UK while a gap in supply has delayed widespread availability in the US until 2017.
Uncharacteristic of Monsanto’s typical offerings, Beneforté is not a GMO. Monsanto invested more than $2 billion to position itself for market dominance with the acquisition of Seminis, the world’s largest purveyor of vegetable seeds, which licensed Beneforté from its original developers in the UK - the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research.
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“A big part of our focus is expanding the geographic scope of production in order to achieve a global market,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s EVP/CTO, recently told Quartz.
Monsanto became a grain superpower largely due to GMOs, and its latest moves to continue strategic seed acquisitions while expanding its germplasm portfolio for global breeding programs has critics alarmed.
“Monsanto largely had the upper hand with the GMO market,” Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, told Sustainable Brands. “In vegetables, especially when it comes to taste and quality, it is a much more level playing field with more competition. What may put Monsanto ahead of the competitors is the use of genomics in breeding vegetables.”
Monsanto is leveraging its Intellectual Property seed juggernaut to achieve seed control that limits genetic diversity and challenges global food security. I asked Myers if this approach could be challenged in the courts.
“The courts have generally favored big business when it comes to patenting living organisms and I don’t see much possibility of bringing a case that would have a chance of overturning the use of this type of intellectual property protection in protecting varieties,” he said. “I would like to see legislators amend patent law to include a breeders’ exemption similar to that in PVP legislation.”
The Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 gives breeders up to 25 years of exclusive control over new, distinct, uniform and stable sexually reproduced or tuber-propagated plant varieties. Monsanto is testing several strains of Beneforté to create a super strain impervious to seasons. As Deena Shanker pointed out in Quartz: “It doesn’t want Beneforté to be the Champagne of broccoli; it wants it to be the Coca-Cola of broccoli. If anyone can achieve that with a vegetable, it’s Monsanto.”
But as Lessley Anderson pointed out last year in Modern Farmer, Monsanto has come to epitomize “a pop cultural bogeyman, the face of corporate evil. The company and its genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds have been the subject of muckraking documentaries (Forks Over Knives and GMO OMG), global protests, and assaults by everybody from environmental activists to The Colbert Report. Facebook and other social media are awash in memes and hashtags such as #monsantoevil. In short, you don’t need to have a degree in marketing and communications to see that Monsanto has a PR problem.”
I asked Myers what consumers need to understand most about their food sources in the hands of global superpowers such as Monsanto.
“Conventional agriculture as it is currently practiced, with the emphasis on maximum yield, is not sustainable,” he said. “In the fairly short term, we will need to deal with a scarcity of phosphorus. I think that there is much potential in organic approaches, but research in this area lags behind that for conventional agriculture because the emphasis over the past 75 years has been on the latter form.
“Corporations do not have a moral compass and decisions that could affect the health and wellbeing of consumers may not necessarily be the most beneficial to the consumer,” Myers added. “Monsanto could decide to cut a project tomorrow with the main rationale being the corporation bottom line and only secondary consideration to the public wellbeing.”
Kind of gives new meaning to the old adage: Eat your vegetables and grow up big and strong.