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St. Louis-based Monsanto has a plan to make sweet-onion farmers weep.
The seed company last week unveiled a tearless onion that it's dubbed the "EverMild," modeled after the famous Vidalia sweet onion from Georgia.
It's far from the biotech firm's first foray into produce, but company officials say it marks a new approach to vegetable science: a way of looking at it from a foodie's perspective.
"Our focus has been more on what makes something a successful product for growers, things like [crop] yield or disease resistance," explains Monsanto spokeswoman Danielle Stuart. "We're looking at things with a more consumer-focused point of view now, at things that are more interesting to the consumer's sensory experience."
Monsanto vice president David Stark envisions grape tomatoes as sweet as Skittles, honeydew melons with a creamy, sugary finish and onions that exude sweetness — whether blended into sorbet or paired with peanut butter. "The onion is just the first step in coming up with fruits and vegetables that taste phenomenal," notes Stark.
Such overtures sound alarm bells in the head of Randy Wood, an owner of Sappington Farmers' Market, a south-county purveyor of local and organic foods. Wood and other advocates of small-scale farming have long touted how much better — and sweeter — so-called sustainable foods taste because of minimal man-made intervention.
"Typically, organic and biodynamic methods of farming increase the fructose levels in fruits and vegetables," says Wood. "For the sweetness to be achieved in a fashion other than through a natural process is concerning. But I'll take the bait and say somebody has to educate me on the process by which they're doing this."
Monsanto says the onion is neither organic nor genetically modified. It took more than twelve years of cross-pollinating different plant breeds, and complex computer models, to arrive at the right proprietary blend of sweetness.
"The trait is a little bit tricky to develop because you can't just eat onion after onion," explains Scott Hendricks, a Monsanto breeder based in Madison, Wisconsin. "We can sample a few, but pretty soon you've ruined your palate for the rest of the day. So, we do rely on a lab screening technique that we've come up with to tell us which onions would match this profile."
The first commercial batch of EverMilds — some 700,000 pounds — was raised by a farmer in Washington, home to another sweet onion, the Walla Walla. The EverMild is being rolled out only in St. Louis-area Schnucks this year, but Monsanto has no intentions of selling the seed to local farmers.
The EverMild is a "long-day" onion that grows best in a more northern climate. It is harvested in September and sold through March, thus positioned as a winter stand-in for the Vidalia, which is only available from April to September.
Like the Vidalia, which, according to state and federal trademarks, can only carry the Vidalia label if grown in a thirteen-county region of Georgia, the trademarked EverMild will have its own intellectual property protections.
Hendricks, the Monsanto breeder, says farmers using EverMild seeds must conform to growing conditions set out by Monsanto, and samples from every yield must be tested and approved for sweetness in order to carry the EverMild label.
Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee and marketer for Vidalia growers, barely flinches at the prospect of competition. "We'll always have companies that will try to emulate us, and you know what they say about imitation being the highest form of flattery," says Brannen.
"We always welcome the competition, but a lot of this really is tried and true farming practice. We have a lot of third-generation farmers who've been doing this for a while and really know what they're doing. I feel really secure."
Monsanto is trying to seize on the fashionable concept of counting "food miles," the environmental cost of delivering food from farm to fork. Company officials suggest consumers will feel better about buying a winter onion from a U.S. farmer than one shipped up from, say, South America.
It's a bittersweet notion for hardcore foodies. "When the asparagus that you've been dreaming about for two or three months comes in, and the tender peas, the morels, when those first spring offerings arrive, they come with an excitement and a joy that, if you've had asparagus year-round, or tomatoes year-round, you lose," observes Julie Ridlon, a caterer, personal chef and founder of several local farmers' markets.
"But," adds Ridlon, "we all need onions through the winter. It'd be great if the onions could be grown in Missouri, and if they can't be, well, Washington's better than Peru."