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Seminis -- GE Vegetable Seeds
January 31, 2000
In the past five years, the California-based company Seminis Vegetable Seeds has gained control of approximately 19% of the worldwide fruit and vegetable seed market; Seminis now provides the seeds for some 40% of all vegetables sold in the United States. Through the combined strategies of controlling large amounts of germ plasm and entering cooperative agreements with biotech developers such as Monsanto, Seminis Vegetable Seeds is positioning itself to lead the way in future genetic engineering of fruit and vegetable seeds.
Seminis is a subsidiary of the Savia Corporation, formerly known as Empresas La Moderna (ELM). Based in Monterrey, Mexico, Savia is part of the Pulsar Group, headed by Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo Garza. Pulsar's activities range from health care to insurance to agribusiness. The company was created through the merger of three large seed brands -- Asgrow, Petoseed and Royal Sluis -- plus the acquisition of nine smaller ones. These smaller brands include regional specialties such as Choong Ang, which supplies seeds in South Korea, and Horticeres, which operates in Brazil.
Seminis has seed production facilities in Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington as well as in over 18 other countries; major processing facilities in California, Idaho, Chile and the Netherlands; and research centers in France, Italy, South Korea, the Netherlands and the U.S.
Seminis is developing a range of crops with traits such as herbicide, virus, insect or fungus resistance, as well as foods with "improved" characteristics intended to appeal to consumers. Plans are in the works to introduce fungus-resistant lettuce, virus-resistant melon with longer shelf life, peas with high sugar content, and disease-resistant tomatoes with increased levels of the nutrients beta-carotene and lycopene.
A collaborative agreement established with Monsanto in 1997 lays the groundwork for applying Monsanto's genetic engineering technologies, including insect resistance (Bt toxin) and glyphosate resistance, to vegetable and fruit seeds. Seminis is developing Roundup Ready lettuce (engineered to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, active ingredient glyphosate); if approved for sale, the lettuce could enter supermarkets as early as 2003. Work is also under way to develop Roundup Ready tomatoes.
Seminis is currently field testing many of its genetically engineered crops. In California alone, Seminis is testing or has recently tested plots of glyphosate-resistant lettuce, peas, cucumbers, and tomatoes plus a wide variety of fungus-, insect-, and virus-resistant vegetables. Among its activities in other states, Seminis has planted or is currently testing insect-resistant tomatoes in Florida and glyphosate-tolerant lettuce in Georgia and New Jersey.
One of Seminis' genetically engineered products, a virus-resistant squash, is already being grown commercially. Developed by Asgrow, the first transgenic squash was approved for commercial production in 1994. A second variety, with resistance to three viruses, was approved in 1996 and a third is now being field tested. Domestic squash has a number of wild relatives in the United States. Thus a real threat exists of genetic pollution, in which the trait for virus resistance could spread to wild relatives creating "super weeds" with a competitive advantage. Asgrow's tests for ecological safety have been criticized as entirely inadequate by ecologists and organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, but were accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as sufficient for approving commercial cultivation of the crop.
Seminis' 1999 prospectus states that "the application of genetic improvements to crop plants has provided greater value to growers which can be captured by the seed industry through higher prices and greater demand." An illustration is Seminis' long shelf life tomato seeds, which sell for $5,200 per pound, contrasting with $1,400 per pound for traditional varieties. Another way Seminis expects to profit from genetic engineering is by producing a "reallocation of grower spending": farmers will spend less on agricultural chemicals and therefore will be willing to pay more for seeds.
Source: "Expanding the Biotech Frontier -- Seminis Vegetable Seeds," Global Pesticide Campaigner, December 1999.