Once upon a technologically optimistic time, the founders of a swaggering biotech startup called Calgene bet the farm on a tomato. It wasn’t just any old tomato. It was the Flavr Savr, a genetically engineered fruit designed to solve a problem of modernity.
Back when we all 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 Safeway. 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. Calgene scientists inserted into the fruit’s genome a gene 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 to make a better tomato, only to find itself awash in red ink. Eventually, it was swallowed by Monsanto.
But the quest for a longer-lasting tomato didn’t end there. As the Flavr Savr was stumbling (Monsanto eventually abandoned it), 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. He found a marketing partner, which licensed the tomato and flooded the US market without any PR problems. 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.
The tale of the Flavr Savr is a near-perfect illustration of the plight of genetically modified organisms. A decade ago, GMOs were hailed as technological miracles that would save farmers money, lower food prices, and reduce the environmental damage unintentionally caused by the Green Revolution – a movement that increased yields but fostered reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and wanton irrigation. Gene jocks said they could give us even greater abundance and curb environmental damage by inserting a snip or two of DNA from another species into the genomes of various crops, a process known as transgenics.
In some cases, GMOs have fulfilled their promise. They’ve allowed US farmers to be more productive without as much topical pesticide and fertilizer. Our grocery stores are stuffed with cheaply produced food – up to 70 percent of all packaged goods contain GM ingredients, mainly corn and soybean. GM has worked even better with inedible crops. Take cotton. Bugs love it, which is why Southern folk music is full of tunes about the boll weevil. This means huge doses of pesticides. The world’s largest cotton producer, China, used to track the human body count during spraying season. Then in 1996, Monsanto introduced BT cotton – a GMO that employs a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to make a powerful pesticide in the plant. BT cotton cuts pesticide spraying in half; the farmers survive.
But while producers have embraced GMOs, consumers have had a tougher time understanding the benefits. Environmentalists and foodies decry GMOs as unnatural creations bound to destroy traditional plants and harm our bodies. Europe has all but outlawed transgenic crops, prompting a global trade war that’s costing US farmers billions in lost exports. In March, voters in Mendocino County, California, banned GMO farming within county lines.
Opponents have found an ally in crop scientists who condemn the conglomerates behind transgenics, especially Monsanto. The company owns scores of patents covering its GM seeds and the entire development process that creates them. This gives Monsanto a virtual monopoly on GM seeds for mainline crops and stifles outside innovation. No one can gene-jockey without a tithe to the life sciences giant.
Which brings us back to smart breeding. Researchers are beginning to understand plants so precisely that they no longer need transgenics to achieve traits like drought resistance, durability, or increased nutritional value. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that our crops are chock-full of dormant characteristics. Rather than inserting, say, a bacteria gene to ward off pests, it’s often possible to simply turn on a plant’s innate ability.
The result: Smart breeding holds the promise of remaking agriculture through methods that are largely uncontroversial and unpatentable. 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. Now replace those fuzzy factors with precise information about the role each gene plays in a plant’s makeup. Today, scientists can tease out 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 without the help of transgenics. 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 activist, and the FDA.
May 2004 Richard Manning, wired.com