Inside the melon greenhouse at Monsanto’s Research and Development lab in Woodland, hundreds of cantaloupes grow in long rows. These cantaloupes may look normal. But there’s more to these melons than meets the eye. Every one of these cantaloupes is an experiment.
“Pretty much all of agriculture starts with a seed,” said John Purcell, global lead of research and development at Monsanto. “Some farmer is going to put that seed into the ground. What’s happened over the years is, the ability to improve that seed, the ability to put more power into that seed, is what the biology revolution has been.”
FOX40 was invited to go behind-the-scenes of Monsanto’s research lab in Woodland. The first stop on the tour was the seed pathology department, where scientists scan millions of seeds. Their goal is to find traits that will lead to better crops and avoid agricultural disease. But it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes you get really lucky and you find something right away. Sometimes it takes decades to find resistance,” said Staci Rosenberger, a seed pathologist at Monsanto.
The seeds with the best genes are then sent to greenhouses. The not-so-good ones, lacking disease resistance or a potential for a good yield for farmers, are stored in a massive seed library until they are needed again. The library has millions of seeds and is overseen by two full-time seed librarians. In the melon greenhouse, breeder Jeff Mills grows hybrids of the melon plants, trying to create new varieties that farmers and consumers will like.
“When you go to the grocery store, you expect a melon to look a certain way. Be a certain size, a certain shape. If the netting is not uniform, if it has a bald spot on one side, you’re going to assume there’s something wrong with it and keep moving. You’re going to buy an apple,” Mills told FOX40.
Monsanto says most of their work here is genetic science, but it’s not genetic modification. Of the 20 fruits and vegetables grown at this facility, Monsanto says only sweet corn and squash are genetically modified.
“GMOs are very valuable. They have benefits at the grower level for many crops, but it tends to be most of those that are larger-acre crops. Things like corn, soybean, et cetera. Not necessarily the vegetable space,” said Purcell.
The company is no stranger to controversy for its use of GMOs. Groups like the Center for Food Safety say GMOs are unsafe and can contaminate other non-GMO produce in farmers' fields.
Agencies such as the American Medical Association say there’s no evidence GMO’s are harmful. Monsanto is also being sued by dozens of people across the country, who say glyphosate, an ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup, gave them cancer. Purcell says most of the research on glyphosate is on Monsanto’s side.
“Regulatory body after regulatory body has confirmed the safety of glyphosate,” Purcell told FOX40. “You look for different methods to control your weeds, but glyphosate is a very good herbicide. It has an outstanding record from a regulatory perspective and from a safety perspective.”
Another issue causing some criticism is Monsanto’s changing workforce, while the high-tech facility employs hundreds of people, some jobs are now being done by robotics.
“Our market lab is very much driven by robotics,” said Purcell.
But within Monsanto, there’s one job that only a human can do. Inside the company’s Consumer Sensory department, Dr. Chow Ming Lee, also known as “Dr. Yummy,” tests Monsanto’s produce on potential consumers.
“There have been a lot of attempts to mimic the human mouth. It’s a very challenging task,” said Lee.
He explained, human taste and cultural trends can change year to year. A good tomato today may not be a good tomato tomorrow. But robots can’t keep up with human trends. So taste tests will always be done with people.
Monsanto’s science may come under scrutiny. But as the world’s largest producer of seeds, the company’s research has a big impact on agriculture and the future of food.