Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 19
Tip of the icebergA locally invented lettuce variety is now owned by Monsanto
BY KATHY JOHNSTON
Succulent crunchiness is the first thing you notice when you bite into a leaf of a new type of lettuce that’s just come on the market. Juicy, crispy, and surprisingly sweet, it’s a greener and healthier version of iceberg—and it was invented and patented in SLO County.
At the end of a street in a quiet residential area of Arroyo Grande is a seed research station, where plant breeder Bill Waycott has toiled for years in greenhouses and labs, patiently cross-breeding ancient and modern types of lettuce to create a more nutritious iceberg. He never dreamed that the result of his painstaking efforts would one day be taken over by agriculture giant Monsanto.
It’s a local example of the way the giant multinational corporation has muscled into the vegetable seed industry, now owning many popular garden varieties and the genetic material they contain.
Monsanto is likely to be increasingly in the spotlight as campaigning ramps up for a statewide proposition that has qualified for a spot on the November ballot. The proposition calls for labeling of foods that contain GMOs, or genetically modified organisms—where unrelated species are put together using sophisticated laboratory techniques.
The new lettuce variety developed in SLO County doesn’t rely on GMOs; it was bred the old-fashioned way. In the Arroyo Grande greenhouses, as a Spanish radio station blares through tinny speakers, a trained worker carefully emasculates the tiny yellow flowers of selected lettuce plants. Once the pollen is removed, each flower is labeled; then specially selected pollen from another lettuce plant is applied by hand—with one flower “kissed” by another.
Now Monsanto has begun marketing the new lettuce it owns, branding it as Frescada and offering it for sale for the last month in Sam’s Club stores in California and five other states. Test-grown in fields in the Santa Maria Valley, Arroyo Grande, King City, and Arizona, it’s a crunchy, dark-green cross between iceberg and romaine.
Before it was owned by Monsanto, the new lettuce—then called rolett—was marketed as “100 percent natural” with “No GMOs.” But breaking into the already tight lettuce market proved a difficult challenge at the time.
Waycott is used to seeing his boss change, as the seed research station where he works has been taken over by new owners four times since he began his lettuce project. Monsanto bought Seminis Vegetable Seeds for $1.4 billion cash in 2005, putting it among the world’s largest seed companies.
Still, Waycott said, “It’s a nice story, and it’s all happened here, with individuals working together to make a more nutritious lettuce and a new experience for consumers.”
With lettuce making up more than 10 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States, he said, any increase in its nutrition content has a positive effect.
Waycott—who said he is one of only about 50 lettuce breeders in the world—began his quest to invent a healthier iceberg lettuce some 20 years ago, crossing it with a romaine variety developed over thousands of years in the Mediterranean region.
“Records going back to Egypt show that lettuce has been consumed for 10,000 years. Frescoes on pharaohs’ tombs show romaine plants,” he said.
He found romaine seeds from a bazaar in northeast Turkey, in a town on the old Silk Road, to use as a parent in his breeding process.
Perfecting a new lettuce variety has been a slow journey, involving precise selection of traits in each generation of plants.
He helped his plants become resistant to disease by crossing them with a spine-covered wild variety that looks more like an unappetizing dandelion than a tasty salad ingredient. He also selected for an upright lettuce head that would be easier to harvest than traditional iceberg.
Once he succeeded, Waycott patented his invention, and the process he used to develop it. That patent is now owned by Monsanto.
“We purchased seed companies to access that genetic material,” explained Carly Scaduto, communications manager for Monsanto’s vegetable seeds division. “The majority of our work with vegetables is cross-breeding [rather than GMOs]. Organic growers use seed developed by Seminis. People have their opinions, but there’s a lack of information and a fear that this big giant biotech company is going to take over our food.”
Monsanto has learned how to speed up the process of plant breeding, according to Scaduto. What she calls “advanced breeding” involves mapping plants’ genomes for certain traits, rather than relying on just the way a plant looks to select the ones to breed.
The corporation’s scientists have located genomes in vegetables’ DNA that control factors such as pungency in onions, disease resistance, or color, Scaduto said.
“Obviously, we’re doing something right, because we’re still in business,” she added.
Still, some growers are nervous about the corporation’s ownership of so much of the genetic material of vegetables.
“Seeds are life. And if all that life is owned by one corporation, that’s scary,” said Simone Smith, owner of Educated Gardener nursery in Santa Margarita. “Should one corporation control the seeds of the world’s food supply? That’s a concern.”
Efforts are underway to counteract Monsanto’s ownership of so many popular vegetable varieties and their genetic material, according to the Organic Seed Alliance in Washington state.
John Navazio, a plant breeder for the Organic Seed Alliance, said Monsanto’s move has been an impetus to develop alternatives that remain in the public domain.
“It’s really galvanized everyone involved in organic seeds to say, ‘We need an alternative.’ More farmers are now interested in farmer-centric seed systems, producing seeds to supply to alternative seed distribution systems,” Navazio said.
“Everything they can do, we can do better. The old-fashioned way of classical plant breeding still works. New genetic stuff pops up all the time; it’s not a finite resource. It’s epigenetics, the evolutionary model, where plants have inborn mechanisms to create new genetic variations.”
Navazio concluded, “Genetic resources are the common inheritance of all human beings. Many good people are looking for models to keep genetic resources in the public domain and not have them owned.”
Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.
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