Can We Make Supercrops Without Genetic Engineering?

Researchers at Cornell University are hard at work creating the next big thing in the food sciences. They’re dramatically changing the vegetables we all know and love, but they’re not doing it with newfangled gene-manipulating technology, a la Monsanto. Technically speaking, it’s still a form of genetically modified agriculture, but the team is using good old-fashioned agricultural practices to do it. Their goal? To improve flavor, to make plants easier to grow and to keep food fresh for longer – and if it catches on, sustainability advocates will soon have a new way to eat organic produce.

Broccoli Like You’ve Never Seen It

It’s all about selective vegetable breeding, which can allow us to change the way an organism develops or to tweak its characteristics. Gregor Mendel did it with pea plants back in the day. Darwin did it with pigeons. But Thomas Bjorkman, one of the leading researchers of the Cornell group, has used selective breeding to create a revolutionary new kind of broccoli.

Here’s the problem the team wanted to solve. Broccoli won’t flower when the weather gets too hot, so over 90% of the broccoli grown in the U.S. comes from mild, fog-covered regions in California. Those flowers are what ultimately turn into the big green bunches we buy at the grocery store, and it costs both money and green street cred to ship it all over the country. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could grow the stuff back east?

Bjorkman thought so. His Eastern broccoli is bred specifically for the hot, humid conditions of New York and South Carolina. When fresh-picked, it’s tender enough to be sliced into salads without the need for steaming, but it’s amply crisp, too. There are no woody stems or tough florets, and the flavor is much sweeter than what most of us are used to. While the limp broccoli on a veggie tray serves as an adequate ranch dip delivery system, this stuff is delicious all by itself.

Using Genetically Modified Agriculture to Keep Food Fresh

If we no longer have to ship tons of broccoli from Fresno to the Midwest and the Atlantic seaboard, that’s a big win for the environment – those trucks and trains burn a lot of fuel, genetically modified agriculture broccoliafter all. But that’s not the only benefit. It’s easier to keep food fresh when we grow it locally, and fresh food that’s never seen the inside of a freezer is usually more nutritious. That’s because freezing and blanching (not to mention cooking) have been linked to the loss of vitamins and other nutrients.

Eastern broccoli, though, actually seeks to improve on the nutritional profile of everyone’s favorite cruciferous vegetable. Bjorkman’s final hybrid will contain higher amounts of a cancer-fighting compound known as glucoraphanin.

Is This a Step Too Far for Science?

Is Bjorkman using genetically modified agriculture to get these results? Eastern broccoli is, strictly speaking, the result of genetic manipulation. But so were Gregor Mendel’s hybrid pea plants. The same is true for heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn and just about any other fruit or vegetable crop you can name. Do you enjoy a good summer strawberry? Unless you’re filling your bowl with wild berries, you’re taking advantage of an ongoing experiment in genetically modified agriculture that started in medieval France.

Likewise, the Cornell group didn’t insert genes using modern biotechnology. Instead, Bjorkman and his colleagues crossbred broccoli plants with other compatible vegetables. By selecting the healthy offspring and focusing on desired characteristics, the researchers were able to create Eastern broccoli.

One big question is whether or not this research represents a more organic approach to creating superveggies or if it’s just another avenue for corporate abuse. For us, the prospect of naturally crisper, tastier fruits and veggies is exciting, and the fact that these new crops can be produced using natural methods of hybridization is a huge bonus. At the very least, it should be interesting to see how the market responds!

Where do you draw the line when it comes to genetically modified agriculture? Do you see a difference between inserting a gene for pesticide resistance and the work that Bjorkman is doing? Let us know in the comments section if you’d rather eat organic broccoli that didn’t come out of the Cornell labs.

Oh – and don’t forget that BerryBreeze™ is still the easiest way to keep food fresh, not to mention the easiest way to prevent food waste. Bonus: it uses exactly no genetically modified agriculture!