Forbidden Fruit

TheBiotechnology Origin of Sweet Fingerling Peppers

I came across a clamshell container of these little finger-sized peppers in a Southampton, NY produce market about five or six years ago.  I wrote about them in one of my early "ramblings"; but you don't know the rest of the story and the mystery resolved that is just so disturbing that it makes me think that the days of traditional plant breeding in the public's interest may be slowly coming to it's inevitable end.

I bought the peppers from Schmidts Marketbecause I immediately saw them as a new line to add to my seed collection.  I never saw anything like them before.  I was glad that they were in their ripe stage and the green fruit had been marketed in their mature red, orange and yellow colors.  Ideal for saving pepper seed.   When I opened them up to save the seed, I noticed that they averaged perhaps 10 seeds to a fruit and some were actually seedless.  What an odd trait I thought.

That was so many years ago, all I remember about the container is a stamp indicating that it was a product of Mexico.  Oddly, I never saw any of these peppers in the market after that.  As the years went by I paged through my extensive collection of old and new seed catalogs.  Nothing. 


Many of the seeds I collect come from interesting fruit that I see at farmstands and in the supermarket.  Some come from other collectors.  Some make it into one of my breeding projects (white pumpkins, ornamental edibles, Indian popcorn, cluster tomatoes, etc.)   I remember reading about the award winning delicata squash that was developed from a supermarket squash that caught the eye of one of the most respected breeders of Cucurbits, Henry Munger.  Whether in the field or in the grocery;  take it from experience, the eye of a vegetable breeder is always alert to some new trait that can be worked with.

But the breeder as "scientist" always wants to know the origin if only to give credit where credit is due like developing a new science theory and citing your references, whose ideas you build upon.  And so it was with the sweet fingerling peppers as I began to call them.  The first year I grew them there was some diversity.  I expected that they would be hybrids.  I was familiar with most common open pollinated breeding lines of sweet peppers.  There was not a whole lot of diversity in the second generation indicating that the parents of these little peppers were closely related.  In the following years I was able to select plants that produced red, yellow, dark orange and light orange as well as a line that produced much larger but equally sweet fruit.

Ah, the years of naive bliss, working with my rows of fingerling peppers.  The crisp, sweet crunch of their fruit, the beauty of their crayola colors.  Visitors to my garden also marveled at the unique peppers.  As I worked with the plants, their seeds and progeny,  I noted changes and variations.  When I talk to aspiring breeders, I say, "make it your own".  You start with something special and you make it your own by selecting for the characteristics that you want;  the characteristics that you need.  Sometimes it is an almost unconscious process,  you save the seeds of the plants that do best in your field.  You make it better.  Generation after generation, it becomes adapted to your cultural practices, your tastes and the ecological community it now grows in.  Such is the tradition in plant breeding. 

The sweet fingerlings were beauties that became more prized over time.   Our goal at the Long Island Seed Projectis to identify and develop vegetable varieties for the local organic community.  The fingerling peppers were looking mighty fine for introduction.  But the origin of the original seed source was still a puzzle. I had not located a seed source so I began thinking that these little peppers may be a produce company proprietary variety like "broccolini" whose owners corner the market by tightly controlling seed production, crop production and marketing. Controlling all distribution channels makes the slender miniature stalks of broccoli an item that will probably never show up in the pages of your favorite seed catalog or at your local farmstand although I've heard of imitations. It may also be since fingerlings are such frugal seed producers; from the economic view, they may be maintained in the field through several blooming cycles which may explain the production in tropical Mexico. I shared my thoughts with a friend.

Some time later I received an e-mail from my friend under the subject heading, "Bad news, Ken".  I couldn't believe the news.  I was directed to Google "Veggie Sweet".  The peppers are sold as "Pixie Sweet", "Veggie Sweet" or "Mini Sweets" by the company, Bionova Produce of Nogales, Arizona and McAllen, Texas with distribution links into California and Montreal.  Bionova acts as a holding company for ABSA (Agrobionova Mexico).  Through various corporate connections it seems indeed that the farms and labor force, packing and distribution is under one company or closely allied companies. Savia, through its subsidiaries Seminis and Bionova (ABSA) is a huge marketer of vegetable seeds as well as a produce distributor.   Seminis seeds is owned by Monsanto.  Sure enough, you won't find these little sweet peppers at your local farm.  Just like Broccolini, the Vegi-Sweet peppers are controlled from seed to grocery store product by amonopoly.  So, if you want to produce these cute peppersin your garden you have to buy the peppers and save their seed for planting- right?  Unfortunately, no.

Digging deeper into the origin of the fingerling peppers, I find that their origin comes from a single plant produced by tissue culture at a then based, New Jersey company, DNA Plant Technology but which shut down their research division in 2002 but whose intellectual property is owned by Bionova and therefore under the Seminis/Monsanto umbrella.

As I understand it, DNA Plant Technology, the biotech in it's early days had managed to turn the immature pollen grains of a pepper flower's anther (male part) placed onto a nutrient gel into embryonic pepper plants. Having only half the genetic material of normal living cells (only the male component), cells of the haploid plants were doubled using colchicine which interferes with normal division of chromosomes in the cell.  This strangely derived pepper seems to be the source of the low seed trait.  This male parent was used as one of the breeding parents of a number of experimental lines using plant material from the public USDA seedbank (GRIN).  Eventually, a plant bearing fruit of a low seeded red jalapeno shaped extra sweet pepper was bred.

"That's not what I imagined", I wrote back to my friend.    The story becomes more ominous as I research DNA Technology and their patent holdings.  DNA Technology not only holds the patent to the the technique that they used to develop Veggie Sweet, they hold the ownership patent to their "invention", Vegi-Sweet. What is claimed according to their patents is the the fruit of jalapeno shaped, very sweet, low seeded pepper;  the tissue culture technique of producing such peppers and the seed of such peppers as well as variants, hybrids, clones, etc. of those plants grown from those seeds that retain the low seed qualities of veggie sweet.  So, following the chain of acquisitions and holding companies, Monsanto owns every aspect of these little "fingerling" peppers.  When you purchase these little colorful peppers marketed by Bionova with their USDA Organic Label and perhaps the "Tinkerbell" logo when they are marketed as "Pixie Sweet" under the Disney Kids label, there is a limit to your ownership. Save the seeds?  That would be a legal issue.

For someone who believes in open access breeding and the tradition of free exchange of breeding materials this was a startling revelation about my fingerling peppers.  It is unclear what the ramifications of this kind of germplasm ownership will be in the world of plant breeding.  Working with seeds collected at farms or farmstands and at supermarkets or trading seeds with other backyard breeders and hobbyists around the world to develop your own regional varieties may be problematic since patent information is not always known or conveyed to the breeder and seed producer.

It shouldn't be that way.  You know my feeling about the "invention" and "ownership" of vegetable varieties.  PVP legislation at least allows the breeder to work with the "protected" variety as a parent in a new breeding endeavor.  But the kind of patents owned by DNA Plant Technology and Monsanto are different.  For plant breeders both professional and amateur or seed savers to now fear prosecution when trading seed or releasing a new variety development using a parent of a patented "invention" (such as Vegi-Sweet) makes the future of open access breeding precarious.

For the organic breeder, there is the additional problem of unorthodox breeding technology such as transgenic manipulation hidden within a seed we obtain from a supermarket or other unknown source.   Our legislators made the mistake of allowing this to happen many years ago.  It shouldn't have happened but it did.  Today, strings of genetic code are owned by private breeders who have claim over the genetic trait of some living thing as their own. Bits of genetic code are cut and pasted from one organism to another as flippant as using a new word processing program.  Biotechnology companies today are hot in the pursuit of ownership and manipulation of every aspect of what constitutes life.  It pains me deeply that we have strayed so far from the sanctity of life in the interest of corporate profit and we can only speculate where all this will lead.  I am not optimistic.