The Science of a Perfect Melon
This is SVMA6628, and it is the best melon I have ever had in my life!
Some markets call it a “canary melon,” or a “golden honeydew,” because it has a smooth rind like it’s white and green cousin, however, that is where any similarities end. I hope they come up with a better name for it because it doesn’t taste like a honeydew, and the texture of the flesh is more similar to an Asian pear than any melon I’ve ever had.
The eye-catching yellow rind with bright white interior is beautiful. The flesh is firm, flavorful, and sweet. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think that 6628 is the perfect melon.
I’m a firm believer that foodies don’t just travel, they go on food pilgrimages. For most of my adult life, my travel itinerary has always been built around what restaurants I want to visit. In the past few years though, my focus has shifted slightly to source of food – farms.
I was recently invited to tour the Monsanto Farm in Woodland, California, where I was introduced to 6628.
It was developed by Melon Breeder, Jeff Mills. As he guided the tour group through the melon field, we were exposed to row after row of different varieties of melons. Round, oblong, netting, no netting, rough skin, smooth skin, soft, firm, sweet, tart, in any combination you can imagine with names like “Don David,” “Banzai,” “Dewlicious,” and the soon to be released “Flavor Journey.” Because it is still in development, 6628 does not have an official varietal name yet.
Despite my opinions on the perfection of 6628, it really comes down to preference. Europeans like melons with a ribbed skin while Americans prefer a netted rind. Because of these varying preferences, Monsanto develops different breeds of melons to be grown and sold in different markets.
Now I’m sure that you are reading this thinking that when I say “develop,” it means that they are growing these melons in a laboratory, which is not the case. So, before I get into the science of how Monsanto develops their seeds, let me dispel some misinformation.
Transgenic vs. Crossbreeding
During my tour of Monsanto, I was able to visit growing fields and speak with breeders of various crops which included melons, watermelons, onions, sweet peppers, and lettuces.
Different varieties of fruits and vegetables are created by crossbreeding within the same family of crops. Ergo, melons are bread with melons, onions are bred with onions, etc.
The Monsanto breeders use the same techniques that have been used for centuries, like cross-pollination, and grafting. It is done out in the field for test crops, and in greenhouses when cultivating specific breeds.
For instance, while I was visiting the Woodland farm, Monsanto introduced a new type of lettuce called “Frescada.” The lettuce breeders created an Iceberg-Romaine hybrid with the flavor and texture of an Iceberg, and the shape and resilience of a Romaine.
Because Iceberg and Romaine lettuces are related, this new Frescada breed was created through crossbreeding.
Unlike crossbreeds, a transgenic organism is created if a gene is inserted into the DNA of an unrelated organism. There are two transgenic crops that are currently on the market — papaya and corn. In both cases, the inserted genes came from a microbe.
In the case of the papaya, a microbe was found to poses a trait that made it immune to the ring spot virus what was decimating the papaya industry. The gene responsible for that trait was isolated in the microbe, and then inserted into the DNA of the papaya, which resulted in fruit that is now resistant to the virus.
Corn is very prone to pests like worms. To combat these pests, a pesticide was created from a microbe that eats worms. In nature, this microbe would attack the worm, kill it, and then begin to consume it.
The gene that enabled the microbe to kill the worm was isolated and used to make a pesticide. The problem with using pesticide, is that you have to spray it on the crops several times.
Because less pesticide is always better than more pesticide, a transgenic corn was created by taking that pesticide gene from that microbe and inserting it into the corn’s DNA. As a result, the plant now has that worm killing trait, which greatly reduces the amount of pesticides needed to spray on the crop.
A lot of science is used in the development of the various Monsanto crops. As I said before, the seed crops are grown using traditional methods in greenhouses and fields. The lab work done by Monsanto is to support what the breeders and farmers do in the field.
Out in the fields, different varieties are grown together in rows. The reason for this is so that the breeders can easily observe how the crops grow in relation to each other. Each variety has different characteristics.
There are certain desired traits from a grower’s standpoint like firm flesh which makes the melons more resilient during transportation. There are also traits that are desired from a consumer’s point of view. This is where Consumer Sensory Lead, Dr. Chow-Ming Lee’s expertise comes into play.
Dr. Lee takes the different melon varieties (or tomatoes, or watermelon, etc.) and designs market research studies, which are conducted by independent third party firms. In these studies, people rate each melon based on various criteria like flavor, texture, smell, and appearance. Lee can then use that data to help the breeders identify the most desirable traits in each variety.
As the breeders crossbreed traits, further studies can be done to judge the progress of these new varieties.
At this moment you’re probably wondering about all the DNA testing that everyone talks about.
Yes, there is a DNA lab in Monsanto’s Woodland facility, and with the exception of a giant Enrique Iglesias poster on the wall, it’s really not that exciting. So, what do they do in the DNA lab?
First of all, they are NOT doing any genetic splicing. They refer to it as the Marker Lab, and it is filled with robots of various shapes and sizes that analyses the genetic code of the crops that they develop in the fields.
Genotying Lead, Jose Rafael Prado, runs the Marker Lab, which is responsible for identifying the genetic markers in the plant’s DNA that are responsible for the desirable traits that the breeders are looking for.
In the case of the perfect melon, for example, Jeff Mills the Melon Breeder can send batch of 1,000 seeds (each in an individual container identified with a bar code) to the Marker Lab, and say, that he is looking for the genetic marker that gives melons firm flesh.
Prado and his team then test the DNA of each seed, and report back to Mills which of the 1,000 seeds contain the desired genetic marker.
Mills can then use those melon seeds to crossbreed the firm flesh trait with another melon that has another desired trait, like great flavor, to create a melon that has both firm flesh and great flavor.
He can then repeat the process by requesting the Marker Lab to identify which seeds has the genetic traits that give melons a pretty color. Mills then crossbreeds that firm flesh-great flavor melon with a melon that has the pretty color trait, and so on and so forth.
This process is the same methodology used by all the breeders at Monsanto. It is repeated again and again for several generations until the breeders have a melon or sweet pepper, or onion, etc. with all the traits that they are looking for to take a crop to market.
We know how the melons taste, look, and feel the way they do, so now the question is why? This is the question that Sagrario Martinez and her team of scientists answer in the Vegetable Quality Assurance Lab.
Put simply, the VQA lab test the crops to find out things like the nutritional value, as well as things that affect flavor like the sodium levels, acid levels, and sugar levels (brix).
They can even break down the types of sugars (fructose, sucrose, etc.) contained in the fruit, which also affects viscosity if it is processed into juice, puree, or sauce. As a pastry chef, I have learned the importance of brix. The brix level of fruits and vegetables can greatly affect the final product in baking, which is why I use a refractometer to determine the brix so that I know if I need to adjust how much sugar is in the recipe.
In the case of hot peppers, the VQA lab can determine how spicy they are by measuring the Scoville Heat Units. An example that illustrated the importance of the work done in the VQA lab is the declining spiciness of jalapeño crops.
Although they are not definitively sure of what is causing the peppers to lose their heat, Martinez thinks that it is connected to the decline of calcium in the soil. She’s not sure how the plant uses the calcium to to create Scoville units. She just noticed that fields with higher calcium levels in the soil produced spicier peppers.
In creating the perfect melon, the VQA lab assists the breeders by identifying why they look, feel, and taste the way that they do, and ensure that quality is consistent through out the entire crop.
The one thing that I really appreciated during my tour of Monsanto’s Woodland farm was the enthusiasm and pride of every employee I met.
I know that there will be cynics who read this who will think that I was on a media tour and all the employees were obviously instructed to be on their best behavior. To those people I say that passion is a hard thing to fake.
I’ve worked at some great places, and I’ve also worked at some not so great places. Companies that suck the soul right out of you to the point where, regardless of how much you get paid, you dread having to go to work every morning.
In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. From my point of view, the Monsanto employees share the same eagerness and job satisfaction that I saw in the employees at The Googleplex.
It is the common denominator from the receptionists, to the lab techs, to breeders, to the salesmen who sell the seeds. The people that I met at Monsanto, both in Woodland and in Hawaii, are passionate about the part they play in growing food and feeding the world.
I’ve visited a lot of farms. I have the highest respect for farmers, yet I would not really want to be one. I enjoy sleeping in too much. Farming is hard, long, back breaking work so you really have to love what you are doing.
I truly believe that the love and dedication that farmers put into growing their crops has an affect on the final product. Monsanto has the technology and the know how to crossbreed the desired traits into any of their crops, however, there is no genetic marker for passion.
Passion is the human element that can make a good melon into a great melon. Based on the melon that I tasted that day in Woodland, I am very skeptical that any company with any sort of insidious agenda could grow anything that tasted that delicious.
If you don’t believe me, then visit the Monsanto Farm, and prove me wrong!
Disclaimer: Travel arrangements were made and paid for by Monsanto, however I recieved no payment or other compensation to write this article.