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A pair of giant agriculture companies are trying to do what Popeye couldn't - make spinach and some other vegetables taste better.

Monsanto Co. and Dole Food Co. Inc. announced Tuesday that they have launched a five-year project to produce new varieties of spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. The objective is to "improve the nutrition, flavour, colour, texture and aroma of these vegetables," the companies said.

"The idea of course is to develop vegetables with characteristics that consumers want," said Monsanto spokeswoman Riddhi Trivedi-St. Clair. "For example, one of the things that we often hear is people prefer iceberg [lettuce]to romaine because of its texture. So, do we need to develop romaine that has the texture of iceberg?"

The two companies have a lot riding on the project. Both have expanded aggressively into the vegetable business in recent years, hoping an aging population and rising consumer health concerns will push sales up. Monsanto now has about 30 per cent of the North American vegetable seed market and Dole is among the largest sellers of fresh vegetables and prepared salads in the United States.

But vegetable sales have been relatively flat in recent years and an outbreak of E. coli in spinach in 2006 didn't help. Still, compared with 20 years ago, Canadians are eating about 10 per cent more fresh vegetables, according to Statistics Canada.

While farmers and food companies have been breeding plants for decades, even producing different colours of cauliflower, this project seeks to go further by breeding for taste and smell. Not everyone is convinced it will work.

"You haven't seen spinach going gangbusters since Popeye," said Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association, which represents about 130 vegetable farmers in Ontario. "Let's be honest about it, how do you improve the taste of it? I don't know."

Mr. Reaume said breeding plants for taste is difficult because it is so subjective.

"The overriding concern that always pops up when you start to deal with vegetables is what was wrong with the original taste and why are people trying to improve it?" he added. "I would love to have a better-tasting cauliflower. I'm just not a cauliflower guy. And yet my kids are cauliflower kids."

Don Almas, who grows cauliflower and broccoli on 200 acres near Hamilton, said he is worried about the impact on farmers.

"They can't just go fooling around with the genetics," he said. "If they breed something for flavour, it may be harder to grow, it may not work on one soil type. It's tricky."

But Ken Collins, a big spinach grower north of Hamilton, isn't too worried. "I think the consumer is always looking for something new," he said. "I suspect these companies are looking at novelty items that are going to attract customers or they are going to present it in a way that's ready to use … I've got no hesitation in trying to make the food healthier."

He said spinach is making something of a comeback, as health-conscious consumers make more salads and eat more fresh vegetables.

Another Ontario farmer, Jeff Wilson, agreed and said he is seeing an increase in people visiting the vegetable market on his farm.

"There's no question that in last two or thee years there has been an explosion of people coming in trying to get a sense of what the whole buy-local issue is about. They want to connect with the person that actually grows this darn stuff they are eating," said Mr. Wilson, who farms near Orton, between Orangeville and Guelph.

When asked if the interest has translated into more sales, he replied: "Put it this way. It's helping us hang on."

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