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Monsanto. Broccoli. I Love This. Really!

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

This is the rare post about plant-breeding project involving GMO seed giant Monsanto wherein I come to praise the effort, not bury it in scorn.

First, a bit of background. Broccoli is a fantastic thing to eat-even President Obama thinks so. It delivers compounds that seem to fight cancer and help maintain your immune system, among other benefits. It also tastes really, really good when it's fresh and in season. (Here's my simple recipe for roasted broccoli with garlic and chili pepper.)

And herein lies the rub. Broccoli plants grow well enough in warm weather, but they won't flower, meaning no delicious broccoli heads during a hot summer. And for that reason, most of the broccoli consumed in the United States-94 percent of it, in fact-is grown in the foggy zones of California. For people in the eastern half of the country, that means you can generally find fresh, locally grown broccoli only when the weather has cooled in the fall. The rest of the year, the stuff tends to be a bit worse of the wear when it reaches the table after the long haul from California. You know this stuff: limp, bland, vaguely sulfury, kind of gross. Hence, I think, broccoli's tenacious reputation as a good-for-you vegetable that sort of sucks.

As Michael Moss reports in a recent New York Times piece, a group of plant breeders from land-grant universities-including Cornell, the University of Maine, and the University of Tennessee-are looking to extend broccoli's growing season. Using conventional breeding (i.e., not genetic modification), they've created a breakthrough broccoli strain that can "can thrive in hot, steamy summers like those in New York, South Carolina or Iowa," while also delivering heads that are "crisp, subtly sweet and utterly tender when eaten fresh-picked," Moss reports.

The initiative-facilitated by a $3.2 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture and called the Eastern Broccoli Project-strikes me as a proper use of public plant-breeding funds. Its goals seem impeccable: to increase the supply and appeal of a nutrient-dense vegetable in a way that cuts down on cross-country shipping and boosts local food economies. Too often, plant breeding is geared narrowly to the interests of the seed industry's shareholders-such as crops genetically engineered to resist the very herbicides sold by the companies themselves. It's great to see a breeding project geared to actual public interests, one that could transform the way a high-profile vegetable is grown and consumed over a large swath of the country. I can't think of another public seed-breeding project quite like it.

But there's a catch. As Moss reports, two gigantic agribusiness firms, Monsanto and its Swiss rival Syngenta, are partners in the project. They're most known for their GMO corn and soy, as well as pesticides, but Monsanto and Syngenta are also the globe's two biggest vegetable seed purveyors-and, according the the USDA, they and two other firms together control 70 percent of the entire global trade in vegetable seeds.     


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