If you love a vegetable with a story, consider this one: While scouring the rugged cliffs of western Sicily two decades ago, scientists discovered a particular strain of Brassica villosa, one of broccoli’s ancient cousins. While the wild green looks more like kale or mustard—drooping, lobed leaves topped with, when in bloom, small clusters of yellow flowers—the plant has something that cultivated broccoli does not: elevated levels of glucoraphanin, one of the cancer-fighting components that make the vegetable so healthy.
To bring that ancient benefit to modern broccoli, with its familiar head, plant breeders crossed the wild and domestic brassicas to produce a hybrid.
Sound like a vegetable you’d like to give a try? Consider this first: The trademark for the broccoli is owned by Seminis, a subsidiary of Monsanto, the multinational infamous for genetically engineering the herbicide-resistant corn and soybean varieties that dominate industrial American agriculture.
In a new story for Wired, Ben Paynter tells the tale of the broccoli and other new vegetables being developed by Monsanto. There’s a lettuce variety brimming with vitamin C, a smaller bell pepper that cuts down on food waste, tearless onions, and super sweet cantaloupes—and none of them were produced using genetic engineering.
While this is not biotech, Monsanto is bringing some impressive technology into the mix, streamlining the often lengthy process of plant breeding.
Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.
The corporation’s tight control on intellectual property is displayed in its vegetable business too. “Just as with Roundup Ready soybeans, Monsanto prohibits regrowing seeds from the new crops,” writes Paynter, who explains that growers are also subject to “quality-assurance checks” to make sure that poor farming doesn’t result in an inferior consumer product.
If you’re weighing health benefits against corporate citizenship, wondering if a non-GMO vegetable is something you’d willingly eat, don’t agonize over the debate. You’re probably already eating produce grown from seeds the company owns. Seminis, which Monsanto purchased in 2005, is the largest seed company in the world, and its catalog includes, among other favorites, the popular Early Girl tomato.