Episode 89: Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Marketing at the Produce Marketing Association

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GMOs and the Future of AG Technology with Vonnie Estes, Produce Marketing Association

From Growers to Packaging, to Your Table, Technology is Revolutionizing AG. 

When it comes to agriculture technology, Vonnie Estes is the most brilliant woman that The Produce Moms has crossed paths with. She is truly a thought leader in the industry and has done a tremendous amount of work to revolutionize the way technology is utilized in agriculture. 

Vonnie Estes is the Vice President of Marketing at the Produce Marketing Association. She studied Horticulture and Plant Pathology but quickly realized that she loved science, but had no desire to be a scientist. Her gift is in taking the advancements made by scientists and applying it in the field to make people’s lives better through agriculture. She is passionate to work on the edge of scientists’ advancements and be the navigator to apply those incredible discoveries to the world of agriculture. 

The Importance of Technology in AG

In the rural farms of Chile, there are still farmers who manage their entire business on pen and paper in a stack of notebooks. 

As our world moves forward, and technology plays a part in every single aspect of our lives, it makes sense that it has a place in the food industry.

The terms “biotechnology” and “genetically modified” often instill fear in the hearts of the consumers. However, these terms encompass much more than we realize, and are a crucial component to the support of the produce industry. 

  • Technology enables farmers to create a digital footprint and help you, as the consumer, know exactly where your produce comes from. 
  • Technology is creating opportunities for robots to do the hard work, allowing workers to move out of positions of grueling, long hours of work that damages their bodies (i.e. pruning and harvesting) and into jobs that empower their health. 
  • Technology provides software that equips farmers to manage their crops and workers. 
  • Technology increases efficiency – giving farmers real-time data to help them eliminate water waste, and increase crop yields. 

Perhaps one of the leading advances in technology that we often hear about is genetic modification. The presence of GMOs represents groundbreaking work in AG technology, but we often hear about them in a negative light. 

GMOs and the Future of AG Technology with Vonnie Estes, Produce Marketing Association

The Lowdown on GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is a term that is tossed around regularly in the produce world, and it has created a lot of confusion. Consumers are often afraid of its implications, and more and more individuals are grabbing their produce from the “Certified Organic” shelves. 

But what is genetic modification, and is it actually dangerous? 

“90% of scientists think GMOs are safe, including The American Medical Association and National Academy of Sciences.”  – Vonnie Estes. (20:01 – 20:08)

Genetic modification, using tools to change the DNA of a plant cell, started in the 1990s. There are two main traits that scientists work on to increase a crop’s resilience, and increase the harvest. 

  • “Roundup-ready” – Scientists have created a crop that is more resilient to herbicides. 
  • Bug Resistant – Scientists insert insecticide genes into the plant. This protects the plants from being eaten by pests. 

It can be disconcerting to think that there is foreign DNA in the foods you consume. However, it’s important to understand that genetic modification is highly regulated and well tested, and isn’t as widespread as some may think.

“When you think about it, we in the US have been eating genetically modified food since the 90s. 60% of processed food on the grocery shelf has some kind of genetically modified thing in it.” – Vonnie Estes 20:25

It’s also important to note that genetic modification is not a widespread practice for all produce. A genetically modified crop takes 10-15 years to get to market. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent for the regulatory process of development and testing. Only the biggest companies and crops (i.e. corn, soy, canola) can even afford it. 

So, what products ARE genetically modified? 

There are currently three crops on the market that have been modified. Only one of the three are readily available for consumer purchase in grocery stores. 

Potatoes. There is currently a potato crop available for commercial purpose that doesn’t brown when cut. 

Arctic Apple. The Arctic Apple has been genetically modified to not brown. They are not available everywhere, and are well-marked in locations where they can be purchased. 

Papayas sourced from Hawaii. Genetic modification literally saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. When a virus threatened to destroy the entire crop 20-30 years ago, a resistant strain of papaya was developed. 

The Future of GMO

New labeling protocols are being implemented to help consumers understand which products they purchase contain GMO’d ingredients. Products only have to identify their products as GMO’d if they contain a certain percentage of modified ingredients. 

“It’s great to know labels are going to be on all of the [GMO’d] products so we can minimize consumer confusion and increase consumer confidence.” – Lori Taylor (25:24) 

Why support conventional produce? 

According to Vonnie, if you are passionate about sustainability, organic may not be the way to go. 


When only one person is touching everything – it becomes elitist. There is limited potential for scale, increased cost, and limited accessibility for the masses. If you really care about regenerating the soul, and sustainability, organic may not be the best choice. It’s important to consider how things are being grown, and how your choices affect the rest of the population. 

Technology is feeding the world

The goal of biotechnology and genetic modification is to create food to feed the world. Vonnie Estes and scientists in AG Tech want people to eat better, to feed more people, navigate challenges like climate change, and do all of this in a sustainable way that takes care of our earth. 

When you look at all of these factors, it becomes easy to see that technology is a necessary component to help produce food in a way that is efficient, sustainable, and accessible. 

How to get involved

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[bctt tweet=”This week on the Produce Moms podcast Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Marketing at @pma is talking about all things biotechnology, robotics, and gives the lowdown on GMOs. ” username=”theproducemom”]

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About Lori

Lori Taylor is the Founder & CEO of The Produce Moms. For ten years she sold fresh produce to over 300 grocery stores throughout the United States, and today she is fully focused on working with the produce supply chain, media, and government to increase fresh produce access & consumption in the US and around the globe. Connect with Lori on LinkedIn.

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