Don’t expect a big difference, but the beets you buy next year may be sweeter, redder, richer in iron and even larger than this year’s. You can look for comparable improvements during the next decade in corn, rice, potatoes, apples—you name it. And these subtle but significant changes will owe nothing to the little-understood (and scary) science of genetic engineering (GE), or to industrial-strength herbicides or pesticides.
A quiet revolution is overtaking modern agriculture, and it’s an organic one. In both sophisticated university labs and on tiny farms in impoverished Third World countries, scientists are developing new varieties of everyday fruits, vegetables and grains that don’t just taste better—though they do. These crops are also more resistant to disease and harsh weather, and they are more nutritious. Giant food companies, eager to reap the rewards, have begun to join in the research. Third World leaders are watching closely, believing these “superorganics” will help feed hungry people.
The scientists themselves—soft-spoken people like Irwin Goldman, a horticulturist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—don’t talk in terms of “revolution,” but they don’t undervalue their work either. A few years ago, Goldman discovered that some rare, almost forgotten breeds of white carrots contain vitamin E, previously thought to occur (in the vegetable world) only in sweet potatoes.
By crossbreeding these rare carrots with their common orange cousins, he succeeded in placing vitamin E in the orange carrot, giving it, and us, a nutritional bonus.Whenever Goldman wants to produce a stronger, tastier, more nutritious crop, all he does is put one plant with the desired
characteristic next to one that lacks it. Then he just lets Mother Nature—or bees and other insects that help her—do the rest.
“But sometimes all I need to do is place two beets in a cage and smack the side with a stick,
or direct a fan in there, and they cross,” Goldman says. He then plants seeds from the newly cross-pollinated plant, harvests a second generation and keeps breeding.
Goldman employs the same method of crossbreeding that has been used for thousands of years— with a high-tech difference. He and other horticulturists can accomplish things their forebears could not—and in record time—thanks to advances that occurred only in 1986. That’s when Susan McCouch, then a graduate student at Cornell and now an associate professor of plant breeding and plant biology there, mapped the 40,000 genes of the rice genome—its DNA.
This research revealed that the rice DNA could be used to mark genetic characteristics of other grains, fruits and vegetables. For the first time, it was possible to pinpoint the exact spot on the
chromosome of a variety of corn, for example, that lets it stand up to insects—a coveted characteristic.
“These discoveries,” says McCouch, “show us which plants to mate so they produce disease-resistant strains or whatever trait we want to encourage. That’s all that ‘smart breeding’ is. Until now, crossbreeding was trial and error. But gene maps let us mate just the right plants.”
What once took years now only takes weeks. The crossbred seedlings can be tested right away to see if the desired genetic changes occurred. If not, new matings can begin. It was thisapproach that allowed Goldman to produce his superbeets so quickly.
A trim, 41-year-old triathlete and vegetarian, Goldman also experimented with the two genes that make red beets red. He actually figured out how to switch off one gene, making the beet gold. Switching genes on and off, he bred a striped beet with a bull’s-eye appearance.
Fun stuff, but with a serious side: Goldman discovered that beet pigments are rich in an antioxidant called betalain. Betalain stimulates the production of enzymes that slow some risks of aging, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. High-betalain beets aren’t available yet. “But within 5 years, smart breeding will have impacted virtually all commercial farming,” McCouch predicts.
Increasing yields—a key smart-breeding goal—is highly important in Third World countries faced with starvation and malnutrition.“Smart breeding holds great promise there,” McCouch says. “Gene maps are free, so it costs next to nothing to do smart breeding. Also, smart breeding uses native plants, even ‘weeds,’ which often have genes that can improve food crops.
“Smart breeding allows us to reintroduce diversity into agriculture, using little-known types of corn, rice and other crops neglected for years. Just because a variety may not have the tallest plant or biggest yield doesn’t mean it lacks other valuable characteristics.”
Few smart-bred crops are available yet. Even though Goldman’s yellow beet is grown by some Community Supported Agriculture programs, the most exciting work is still in the lab. At universities throughout the world, research similar to Goldman’s is being replicated with corn, soybeans, tomatoes and apples.
Ironically, the first place that smart breeding will make itself felt—or tasted—is likely to be in ketchup. “Scientists are breeding tomatoes that are 30-40 percent higher in sugar,”
McCouch says. “Because sweetness is important in ketchup, that’s where these tomatoes may be used first.”
For now, members of Goldman’s family are among the fortunate few. His wife and two children get to eat the vegetables he breeds and brings home for dinner. Thanks to Dad’s work, one thing he never has to do is tell the kids to eat their beets. Ah, the wonders of modern science!