The surprising future of food

Sustainable agriculture meets a kinder, smarter biotech–with great results for everyone’s health, the earth, and your tastebuds

Richard Manning | November 2004 issue
Back when we most of us lived in villages, getting fresh, flavorful tomatoes was simple. Local farmers would deliver them, bright red and bursting with flavor, to nearby markets. Then cities and suburbs pushed out the farmers, and we began demanding our favorite produce year-round. Many of our tomatoes today are grown in another hemisphere, picked green, and only turn red en route to the local supermarket. Harvesting tomatoes this way, before they’ve received their full dose of nutrients from the vine, can make for some pretty bland fare. But how else could they endure the long trip without spoiling?
Flavr Savr was meant to be an alternative, a tomato that would ripen on the vine and remain firm in transit. Scientists at the Calgene corporation inserted a gene into the fruit’s genome that retarded the tendency to spoil. The gene-jiggering worked – at least in terms of longer shelf life.
Then came the backlash. Critics of genetically modified food dubbed the Flavr Savr “Frankenfood.” Sparked by the Flavr Savr’s appearance before the US Food and Drug Administration, biotech watchdog Jeremy Rifkin set up the Pure Food Campaign, stalling FDA approval for three years and raising a ruckus that spread to Europe. When the tomato finally emerged, it demonstrated that there was no accounting for taste at Calgene. Flavr Savr wasn’t just oddly spelled; it was a misnomer. Even worse, the fruit was a bust in the fields. It was highly susceptible to disease and provided low yields. Calgene spent more than $200 million U.S. to make a better tomato, only to find itself awash in red ink.
But the quest for a longer-lasting tomato didn’t end there. As the Flavr Savr was being dumped, Israeli scientist Nachum Kedar was quietly bringing a natural version to market. By crossbreeding beefsteak tomatoes, Kedar had arrived at a savory, high-yield fruit that would ripen on the vine and remain firm in transit. The vine-ripened hybrid, now grown and sold worldwide under several brand names, owes its existence to Kedar’s knowledge of the tomato genome. He didn’t use genetic engineering. His fruit emerged from a process that’s both more sophisticated and far less controversial.
Welcome to the world of smart breeding.
Researchers are beginning to understand plants so precisely that they no longer need transgenics (moving genes from species to another) to achieve traits like drought resistance, durability, or increased nutritional value. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that our crops are full of desired but dormant characteristics. Rather than inserting, say, a bacteria gene to ward off pests, it’s often possible to simply tap into a plant’s innate ability.
The result: Smart breeding holds the promise of remaking agriculture through methods that are largely uncontroversial. Think about the crossbreeding and hybridization that farmers have been doing for hundreds of years, relying on instinct, trial and error, and luck to bring us things like tangelos, giant pumpkins, and burpless cucumbers. Today, scientists can arrive at desired traits on the fly—something that used to take a decade or more to accomplish.
Even better, they can develop plants that were never thought possible. Look closely at the edge of food science and you’ll see the beginnings of fruits and vegetables that are both natural and supernatural. Call them Superorganics—nutritious, delicious, safe, abundant crops that require less pesticide, fertilizer, and irrigation—a new generation of food that will please the consumer, the producer, the environmentalist, and the EU.
Nearly every crop in the world is part of a broadergene bank consisting of the seeds of thousands of wild and domesticated relatives. Until recently, gene banks were like libraries with millions of dusty books but no card catalogs. Advances in genomics and information technology have given crop scientists the ability to not only create card catalogs detailing the myriad traits expressed in individual varieties, but the techniques to switch them on.
The science behind some of these techniques makes transgenics look unsophisticated. But the appeal is simple: Smart breeding can feed the world, heal the earth, and put an end to the Big Ag (corporate agribusiness) monopoly. Take it from Robert Goodman, the former head scientist at Calgene who now works with the McKnight Foundation, overseeing a $50 million program that funds genomics research in the developing world. “The public argument about genetically modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past,” he says. “The science has moved on.”
In the mid-80s, a grad student in plant breeding at Cornell University was handed a task that none of her peers would take. Her name: Susan McCouch. Her loser assignment: Create a map of the 40,000 genes spread across the rice genome. The completion of her work in 1988 would be heralded as a scientific breakthrough. Sixteen years later, it’s beginning to shake corporate control of science.
A genome map is a detailed outline of an organism’s underlying structure. Until McCouch came along, rice—the most important food for most of the world’s poor—was an orphan crop for research. Big Ag was interested only in the Western staples, wheat and corn. But good maps enlighten—geologists once looked at maps of South America and Africa and figured out that the edges of the two continents fit together, giving rise to the idea of plate tectonics. McCouch’s map was just as revealing. Researchers compared it to the genomes of wheat and corn and realized that all three crops, along with other cereal grasses—more than two-thirds of humanity’s food—have remarkably similar makeups. The volumes of research into corn and wheat could suddenly be used to better understand developing world essentials like rice, teff, millet, and sorghum. If scientists could find a gene in one, they’d be able to locate it in the others.
By extension, characteristics of one crop should be present in related plants. If a certain variety of wheat is naturally adept at defeating a certain pest, then rice should be, too; scientists would just need to switch on that ability. McCouch started her project as a way to unlock the door to the rice library; it turned out she cut a master key.
Food scientists around the world are picking up on her work. In China, researcher Deng Qiyun, inspired by McCouch’s research findings, used molecular markers while crossbreeding a wild relative of rice with his country’s best hybrid to achieve a 30 percent jump in yield—an increase well beyond anything gained during the Green Revolution. Who will feed China? Deng will.
In India, the poor can’t afford irrigated land, so they grow unproductive varieties of dryland rice. By some estimates, Indian rice production must double by 2025 to meet the needs of an exploding population. One researcher in Bangalore is showing the way. H. E. Shashidhar has cataloged the genes of the dryland varieties and used DNA markers to guide the breeding toward a high-yield super-rice.
In West Africa, smart breeders have created Nerica, a bountiful rice that combines the best traits of Asian and African parents. Nerica spreads profusely in early stages to smother weeds. It’s disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and contains up to 31 percent more protein than either parent.
In Wisconsin, in the agricultural heartland of the U.S., Irwin Goldman, a horticulture professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites McCouch’s work as critical to his discovery of several exotic varieties of carrots (ranging in color from yellow to orange, red, and purple) that make vitamin E. Gene bank searches are also revealing a whole host of antioxidants, sulfur compounds, and tannins that have been stripped out of our lowest-common-denominator crops over the centuries. Some of these naturally-occurring chemicals not only fight cancer and increase the nutritional value of our vegetables, but also make them taste better while helping plants fight disease. We now have the ability to bring these traits back.
Agriculture is one of the most ill-conceived human endeavors. We plow down stable ecosystems of hundreds of species to get single-row crops. We then apply pesticides, fertilizers, precious fresh water, and tractor emissions. Then, after every harvest, we start all over again. Organic agriculture breaks this cycle. But it’s just a Band-Aid on the wound.
Add the knowledge and tools of this new kind of biotechnology, though, and we are on the verge of something enormous. Plant genomes carry age-old records that reveal the complex manner by which nature manages itself. Researchers around the world—McCouch and Jefferson are a few examples—are learning to not only read those records but re-create them. The new crops coming out of this research will not only change the way we eat, they’ll change the way we relate to the planet.
Excerpted from Wired (May 2004), the pioneer in news on technology. More information: Wired, PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0706, USA,,
Richard Manning ( is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.

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