Traditional breeding Monsanto's route to yields, disease-drought resistance

Monsanto plans to continue its path toward higher yields, better weed control, and drought resistance in vegetables through traditional breeding research instead of biotech.

“The big secret for us is breeding,” said Hugh Grant, chairman, president, and chief executive officer for Monsanto. “The leverage for us is adding value to the (vegetable) seed through breeding. In the future, biotech is a possibility, but we will be very careful.”

Monsanto owns Seminis, one of the leading vegetable seed breeding companies in the U.S. Grant addressed the issue of breeding in vegetables at the recent 2nd annual Southwest Ag Summit in Yuma, Ariz., the heart of the U.S. winter vegetable production area.

Breeding is just as an important as biotech, Grant told the 750 at the summit. Breeding by molecular marking is similar to “plotting out a street map” for vegetables.

According to Monsanto, using molecular marking breakthrough technology in plant breeding can double the rate of genetic gain in seeds — improving yields while lowering disease, weed, and drought related stresses. Molecular markers allow the tagging of key genes that increase the odds of finding superior germplasm from one-in-a-trillion to one-in-five.

“Today the marker-assisted breeding portfolio in Seminis is 9,000 markers,” Grant said. “With a street map, we have 9,000 streaks identified in our databanks for the vegetable business. We've been working together with the Seminis breeders to excel in building those maps.”

To date about 1,600 such markers have been identified in tomatoes and 1,400 in peppers. About 350 markers have been identified each in lettuce, broccoli, melons, and cauliflower. Over the next 12-15 months, Grant predicted those marker numbers would increase to 1,000-1,500.

“Once you have built the markers, you can start working more aggressively on (breeding for) disease control and quality,” Grant said.

Monsanto's primary business is seed brands in corn, cotton, and oilseeds. Grant said the agricultural company spends up to $2.75 million a day in research and development utilizing biotechnology and breeding.

In corn, Monsanto is in the last stages of developing equivalent yields with less water — “a corn plant that sips instead of gulps,” Grant said. “In the non-irrigated sectors of the Midwest, that is a big deal. After corn, cotton will follow.”

Grant's crop plans for Monsanto were part of his overall message on producing more with less — higher yields amid dwindling agricultural land and water supplies in the world. He predicts world demand for food will double in the next 40 years.

About 70 percent of the fresh water in the U.S. is consumed by agriculture. The other 30 percent goes to swimming pools, Coke and Pepsi, and industrial applications, Grant said. In developing countries about 95 percent of available fresh water supplies are used for agriculture.

Grant referenced an estimate released last fall citing a worldwide first — more people living in cities than in rural areas. That means increasingly more acres of farm ground converted to concrete acres.

With a knife in hand, Grant carefully sliced an apple in half and continued trimming the fruit to a 1/32 sliver to illustrate the amount of farmable ground in the world. The unusable ground includes oceans, mountains, locations too hot or cold, homes, and areas too wet or dry for agriculture.

“A few decades ago the apple was larger and the apple skin was thicker. Urban sprawl continues to shrink so it isn't static. We're feeding more and more people on a thinner and thinner skin,” Grant explained.

About 100 million acres of produce is grown in the world today — 75 percent in Asia with two-thirds grown in China, he said. A huge emerging middle class in India and China is sparking changes in food demands.

“I don't think the story in China is about (more) mouths to feed. I think it's about the mouths eating different foods,” said Grant. “There is a hierarchy emerging in protein consumption in China and India that we experienced in the U.S. about 100 years ago.”

China's middle class routinely consumes animal protein — chicken, pork, and beef, but estimates point to the per capita income of the middle class tripling in a decade. When per capita income rises, Grant said people tend to purchase higher quality food. “They reach for steak.”

Meat consumption in India has increased 40 percent in the last several years. Vegetable consumption has increased as well while consumers are looking for higher quality vegetables, Grant said.

The bottom line is producing more food with less land, water, and energy. Research through breeding and biotech is a critical component of the worldwide solution, Grant noted. Other puzzle pieces include increasing relationships and networks, and applying past lessons learned in agriculture to future issues.

“The importance of relationships and networks is gigantic,” the Monsanto leader said. “The more complex the technology becomes, the higher the premium for relationships and building linkages. No one company or piece of the value chain will be able to figure this out particularly in your business.”

Grant addressed whether Monsanto is becoming too powerful or dominate for such relationships to occur.

“I don't buy it. I think the opposite will occur,” Grant said. “I think you'll (growers) be overwhelmed by choice. I think the complexity will come in multiple flavors. I don't see dominance as much as a dependency on sharing.”

Grant said those in agriculture successfully talk with each other about agriculture. But the industry must do a better job of listening to agriculture's stakeholders.

“I think a piece of this is listening to consumers and their wants, needs, and concerns,” Grant said. “They don't need to be logical or right. At the end of the (food) chain — whether a fresh vegetable market at the end of a road in Yuma or a chilled cabinet in Shanghai — the consumer increasingly makes buying decisions not always predicated on price.”

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