Still Trying to Go One Up On Nature

genome cartoon

The Boston Globe carried a story yesterday about a the efforts of a group of scientists working to release the secrets of plant genomes. The aim, says the author Carolyn Johnson, is to figure out what makes dark chocolate so good and solve other mysteries of taste and flavor.

“We can breed potentially for types of plants with higher levels of a certain kind of flavor — fruity notes, raisiny notes, nutty notes . . . it will help us to understand the genetic basis of flavor,’’ said Mark Guiltinan, a professor of plant molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University. “Especially the gourmet, high-end chocolate manufacturers are interested.’’

Not so fast. Why are we still spending time and money to gain knowledge to improve on the food we eat? Even without knowing the genome of tomatoes or strawberries, plant breeders have managed to do away with all the taste I remember from my long-gone youth. Maybe we will grow cacao beans that taste like spinach. I, for one, am happy with plain old ordinary produce. The money being spent on these projects would be much better spent on social science that could reveal why so many people suffer from malnutrition in spite of our overstuffed supermarkets, or why so many people go to bed hungry all over the globe.

The scientists Johnson quoted are a bit defensive about the brouhaha that already surrounds genetically-modified organism. They make an argument that genetic information will allow breeders to develop strains that are more resistant to natural stresses.

Instead of using the genome as a resource for making genetically modified foods, many researchers are focused on finding ways to use the genetic information to breed better plants. With greater information about the genetic basis of different traits, breeders might be able to make more informed choices about which plants to select and cross-breed.
The biggest opportunity may come in breeding plants that are naturally more resistant to disease, pests, or droughts — allowing farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides or allowing a crop to thrive in different types of environmental conditions.

Monsanto must be reading every paper being published in this area, if not funding much of the research. I can see it coming: Roundup-ready, square strawberries that taste like vanilla milk shakes. Wendell Berry, whose work I am using in a couple of course, would be horrified I believe. Asked about GMO's a few years ago, he said,

"The inevitable aim of industrial agri-investors is the big universal solution. They want a big product that can be marketed everywhere. And the kind of agriculture we're talking about that leads to food security and land conservation is locally adapted agriculture. And they can't do that. Industrial agriculture plants cornfields in Arizona; locally adapted agriculture says, what can we fit in this place that will not destroy it? Or what can nature help us to do here? That's the critical issue."

Anyway the tastiest fruits I know come from my wife's blackberry and raspberry picking in the Maine brambles.

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