Tag Archives: Food

Blackberries: Jewels of Spring

101016Southern springtime brings many botanical treasures, which are usually proudly displayed in orderly fashion in well-kept garden beds. However, the jewels I cherish most are found along overgrown fence lines and creeping into unkempt pastures. I’m talking about wild blackberries or dewberries or whatever you would like to call species of the Rubus genus. In early spring, X’s can be marked on treasure maps when a profusion of white flowers bloom almost synchronously on two-year old canes. After this display, the plants blend into the background greenery nearly lost and relegated to the shadows of honeysuckle and other trees that finally decide to leaf out. Persistent foragers are rewarded several weeks later when ripening berries can be seen in flashes of red, purple and ultimately black.

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Like all precious treasures, blackberries are heavily guarded by barbed brambles. Personally, I’m as at home in a briar patch as Br’er Rabbit and won’t let the snags and sticks of the berry canes keep me from my delicious prize. I’ll endure encounters with bugs of all kinds- mosquitos, fire ants, chiggers, ticks, spiders, and stinging caterpillars. Larger animals will elicit a stronger startle response from me- the flutter of birds, the scurry of rabbits or field mice, the scamper of feral cats and even once the bustle of an extremely near-sighted armadillo. There is only one thing that will cause my stomach to pucker and lead me to call it a day on blackberries- the slither of a snake. This time of year in Louisiana, a snake encounter is a statistical certainty during blackberry picking. Even if I don’t see them, I accept that they are there. I will even go so far as to acknowledge their right to exist in my berry patches.* I would just never like to confront them. So, I tromp heavily in boots and use a cane knife to shake the briars a bit before plunging into them up to my elbows. When I do happen upon the fearsome reptiles, the encounters are never lethal despite my cane knife, but I do lose the nerve for berry-picking for the day.

Blackberry bucket

Blackberry bucket Credit: Johnna Roose

Dewberry canes

Dewberry canes Credit: Johnna Roose

The internet tells me that there are some cultivated varieties without thorns at all that can be grown orderly-like vineyard-style, but it is difficult for this southern girl to reason why you would take the effort to tend such plants when wild varieties produce such deliciousness for free with no aid from a gardener. Nevertheless, several links at the end of this post provide details on blackberry cultivation if you are not a wild-blackberry purist like me. For many wild varieties, some have prominent prickles on the stems and spines on the leaves, while others have additional sharp hairs along their stems. This brings us to an issue of nomenclature dear to some people’s hearts. (No, I’m not talking about thorns vs. prickles vs. spines. I’ve covered that previously.) I’m talking about blackberries vs. dewberries. While blackberries may be an umbrella term for this type of fruit, I’ve noticed that southerners prefer to make the distinction when dewberries are what you are really talking about. I am an equal opportunity berry picker and eater, but here are the highlights when it comes to dewberries. Dewberries, Rubus trivialis**, are slightly larger than most wild blackberries and ripen a few weeks earlier. Their canes are red and contain hairy bristles in addition to prickles, while blackberry canes are green and lack the extra layer of hairy bristles. Blackberry plants have a more upright form, while the dewberry canes bend and creep along the ground with tips that root easily to conquer more ground.

Blackberry, an aggregate fruit of drupelets. Credit: Johnna Roose

Blackberry, an aggregate fruit of drupelets.
Credit: Johnna Roose

While we’re on the subject of nomenclature, there’s something more fundamental we need to talk about. //looks over both shoulders and whispers// They aren’t really berries, botanically speaking. Yes, it’s true. This is another instance when common or culinary usage of a term differs from the strict scientific definition. In the world of plant science, a simple berry is a fruit containing the seeds and pulp from a single ovary. So, things like blueberries and cranberries are examples of fruit both commonly and scientifically referred to as berries. Other believable berries include grapes and currants. You may not believe me, but based on the botanical definition avocados, tomatoes and watermelons are also berries. Incidentally, strawberries are not berries either, but that is a subject for another post. Blackberries, dewberries and raspberries are aggregate fruit, in which each tiny round fleshy piece (a drupelet) is derived from a separate ovary in the flower but bound together in the form we commonly refer to as a berry. Don’t worry, I’ll still call them blackberries because blackaggregatefruit just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

After all, when it comes to food plants, being scientifically accurate takes a backseat to culinary use. ‘Berry cobbler’ just triggers a Pavlovian salivation response that ‘Aggregate fruit cobbler’ doesn’t. I know this isn’t really a food blog, but I feel strongly about wild blackberries, and it’s my blog and I can do what I want. Blackberries should be eaten out of hand using sunshine and dew as the only condiments. If there are any surplus berries, then you should bake them into a cobbler, tart or pie. There are many pastry recipes with berry ingredients, and I’m sure many are delicious. However, I am a minimalist. I rely on the berry cobbler recipe from the ‘Quick-N-Easy’ section of the 1981 Istrouma Baptist Church cookbook. Ingredients: 1 stick of salted butter, 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of milk and 2 cups of berries. Melt butter in baking dish. Mix other ingredients (except berries) together in bowl and pour over melted butter in baking dish. Pour berries over entire mixture and bake at 400 F until golden brown. It’s not fancy, but the simple gooey batter is the perfect medium for the tart flavorful berries. If you’ve really gotten more berries than you can handle in a single dessert preparation, then cook them for juice to make into jelly. Check out this resource from the LSU AgCenter for more information and recipes.

 

Blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream Credit: Johnna Roose

Blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream
Credit: Johnna Roose

The good thing about this treasure is that there is plenty to go around for all determined prospectors. Grab your boots and bucket. It’s berry pickin’ time (or soon will be for those of you just a bit further north).

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Johnna

*My brother would disagree with me. He is convinced that all snakes are copper-headed rattle moccasins. It’s either kill or be killed, and he will put down a layer of cover fire from his handy sidearm at the first sound of scales.

**trivialis, as in trivial. Really, botanical nomenclature, really? I find it hard to believe that anyone that has tasted dewberries would have called them trivial in terms of flavor. They probably should have been named Rubus heavenlyflavorexplosiononmypalate.

References and links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackberry

http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/fruit-nut/files/2010/10/blackberries.pdf

http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/syllabi/608/Lists/second%20ed/Rubustrivialis.pdf

http://www.eattheweeds.com/have-dewberry-will-travel/

http://blog.al.com/living-press-register/2010/05/a_blackberry_guide_dewberries.html

http://thepapershell.com/blackberries-or-dewberries/

http://plants.usda.gov/java/ClassificationServlet?source=profile&symbol=RUBUS&display=31

http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=RUTR

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/coast/nature/images/blackberry.html

http://www.lsuagcenter.com/NR/rdonlyres/5DD47469-DA9F-4398-AD57-85FDB3E9327E/27320/pub1553blackberriesFINAL.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berry

http://www.lsuagcenter.com/NR/rdonlyres/3859EFB2-776D-4071-AC6D-0F2B12A76646/2173/pub2483berry2.pdf

So, this link provides an unbelievably detailed 15-step protocol (15!) for blackberry picking.

http://www.wikihow.com/Pick-Dewberries

Here’s my version:

  1. Put on boots.
  2. Grab cane knife and bucket with handle.
  3. Tromp to back pasture and walk along fence line.
  4. After unripe red berries catch your eye, look for fully ripe blackberries nearby. For every ripe blackberry in the sun, there’s five more hiding under the shade of the leaves.
  5. Be careful not to step on ant piles, field mice, or snakes.
  6. Curse birds and small mammals that scurry out of the berry patch as you approach.
  7. Pick ripe blackberries and eat one for every five you toss in your bucket.
  8. Use yoga breathing techniques, balance and poses to reach ripe berries deeper in the patch.
  9. Curse the perfectly ripe succulent berries that fall from your grip into the dark depths of the ground below the briar patch.
  10. Curse the thorns, prickles and spines of the brambles as they get caught in your clothing, hair and flesh.
  11. Enjoy the morning sunshine until you remember you didn’t put any sunscreen on your neck.
  12. Curse because you forgot to put on insect repellent.
  13. See two inches of what must be a six-foot-long venomous snake. Shriek curses and defy gravity to escape blackberry patch.
  14. Upon entering a human dwelling, pick the ticks off of yourself. (Ironically, this step is unnecessary for any canine companions that have been adequately treated with flea and tick preventatives.)
  15. Cook and eat blackberry cobbler, served with vanilla ice cream.

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day. Instituted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, October 16, is an annual event geared toward raising awareness for agricultural food production, improving our global food system and fighting against malnutrition and poverty. Here are the highlights from the FAO:

“Today almost 842 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. Unsustainable models of development are degrading the natural environment, threatening ecosystems and biodiversity that will be needed for our future food supply.

A food system is made up of the environment, people, institutions and processes by which agricultural products are produced, processed and brought to consumers.

Every aspect of the food system has an effect on the final availability and accessibility of diverse, nutritious foods – and therefore on consumers’ ability to choose healthy diets. What is more, policies and interventions on food systems are rarely designed with nutrition as their primary objective.

Addressing malnutrition requires integrated action and complementary interventions in agriculture and the food system, in natural resource management, in public health and education, and in broader policy domains.”

This year’s theme is “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.” It’s not enough to ‘eat the seed corn’ in order to feed the world’s hungry today. We have to look to more systemic solutions so that everybody can eat. Every. Day. And every day after that.

As a scientist with a research interest in the biochemistry of primary production (photosynthesis), I hope that my work will help us understand how to get more from our obligatory relationship with plants. It’s what I can add to this fight. It’s my part to play. In no way am I diminishing other efforts. The issue of global hunger is a large problem that requires a variety of approaches to solve. We need them all. This is not a one-man show.

If you have enough to eat today, count your blessings. Please take a moment to be mindful of where your food came from and all the hands that played a part in getting it to your fork. Find out what you can do to help end world hunger by checking out the links below.

Johnna

http://www.fao.org/getinvolved/worldfoodday/home/en/

http://www.worldfooddayusa.org/

Further Reading on Food

Just a quick blurb for those of you following my blog with an interest in GMOs and our modern food system… The September 2013 issue of Scientific American is the ‘Food Issue’ with many articles delving into various aspects of our relationship with food. You can have a look at the table of contents to get an idea of the range of topics. Some articles appear to be available online, while others will require a subscription or payment for access. If you are interested in purchasing this single issue, it is available electronically for $5.99. This week in particular has been dubbed ‘Food Week’ and many of their freely available blog posts will focus on food-related issues. And in other food news, the New York Times had a piece out last week on engineering a better supermarket tomato (but not in the way you think, definitely click-worthy no matter your GMO predilections). If you would like to get different views than may be represented in the previously mentioned venues, check out the Food section of Grist for more articles on food science news.

So if you are hungry for some more food-related reading, have these as your appetizer because it will be a few more posts before I get back to the GMO issue on this blog.

Johnna

A Plant Scientist’s Perspective on Genetic Engineering

UPDATE: This is part of a series on GMOs. Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.

In my last few posts, I’ve written about GMOs in our food system- numbers, science and potential. There have also been a few of recent news articles related to GMO crops floating around the mainstream media. These always spark debate and reactionary articles from the other side of the argument. I’ve tried to link many of them in my previous posts, but check out some of the links at the bottom of this post for a sampling of them. Each article brings out strong emotions from the different sides of the debate.

It was always my intention for this series of posts on GMOs to provide ‘the facts’ about how GM crops are produced, how they fit into agribusiness models (or in some cases philanthropic efforts), how they affect our food system, and how they are regulated. My goal is to elevate the discourse surrounding this topic. My strategy is similar to the one I use in the lab as a biochemist- breaking it down to its smallest components, analyzing them and trying to synthesize a complete picture of the way things do work vs. the way things can/should work.

Before moving on to the issues that fall outside of the science, I’d just like to pause and offer some additional perspective on genetic engineering from my vantage point as a plant scientist. I don’t claim to speak for everyone, but I don’t think my view is very different from the average plant scientist. So, if you will allow me, this is my agenda* as a plant scientist.

First and foremost, I am in awe of plants for their photosynthetic lifestyle and their biochemical talents. While they already provide us with so many useful things- food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals, humans continue to look to plant species to provide more. I feel it is my role as a plant scientist to continue to study these fascinating organisms so that we can better understand how to get the most out of our relationship with plants. A fundamental premise of this relationship is that humans are willing to alter the genetics of plant species to suit their needs.** This has been done for millennia without genetic engineering using techniques such as selective breeding, hybridization and induced mutations. Much effort has gone into understanding how plants and their genetics work from Mendel and his peas until the present day. Amazing discoveries have been made. The Holy Grail is the identification of candidate genes for desirable traits that can be used either as markers for traditional breeding techniques or targets for specific genetic engineering.

Yes, I think that transgenic technology offers a powerful new tool for optimizing plants for the traits we desire of them. I also think that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Genetic engineering is something that should be done carefully and with transparency. This is true of many things spawned of scientific discovery. However, other factors impose stricter timelines. Things like malnutrition and global food security (now and in the future) are problems demanding answers now. New plant diseases and pests do not always offer us the luxury of time needed for other alternatives. Again these are complex problems that deserve multifaceted solutions. I’m not suggesting that genetic engineering is the sole answer, but I’m arguing that it should play a role.

As part of an implicit social contract, scientists have been entrusted with the task of researching plants to benefit society in some way- either some tangible new product or a new understanding of the way plants work. (This is the premise under which I am working because it surely isn’t for fortune or glory. In fact I count it a great privilege to be employed doing something I find intellectually stimulating that may also change our lives for the better.) The body of scientific work surrounding the central dogma of biology, fundamental genetics and plant science, which has been unraveled by scores of scientists, has led us to the point where we have the ability to genetically engineer plants. So, yes, I have to admit it, from my perspective, it stings just a little when all of this effort is outright rejected, cast aside as offensive and rebuked as hubris.

So here are some honest (non-rhetorical) questions that I would like to inject into our debate as to how to gain societal acceptance of genetically engineered food plants. At this point I’m talking only from a scientific point of view. There may be other reasons to be anti-GMO some of the currently cultivated varieties. These are good questions to consider for yourself before I get into the reality of how safety, regulation etc. actually works in our current system. You can compare your internal idealized standards to those currently used, then decide if it is necessary to advocate for change.

What should be done to ensure genetically engineered food plants are safe (for consumption and the environment)?

What kind of transparency is needed in the development of new transgenic crop plants?

What kind of transparency is needed at the consumer level when it comes to GMOs (i.e. labeling)?

Do you think these standards should be applied to all new crop varieties with altered genetics (and potentially novel proteins and biochemistry) like new hybrids or the results of other selective breeding practices?

One final thought: All new endeavors, discoveries and inventions spawned by science must balance risk with potential reward. In the context of the GMO food debate, people seem extremely intolerable of minimal risk for the rewards offered by GM crops. Think about how this risk-reward balance compares to other aspects of modern life. For humans, traveling at speeds of 60+ miles per hour in steel cages powered by highly flammable and toxic chemicals is completely unnatural. For both travelers and the broader ecosystem, this mode of transportation carries a much greater risk than that posed by growing and eating GMO food plants. However, we all daily accept this as an ordinary modern convenience. Many people do not feel the need to know the exact inner workings of our automobiles. Many of us accept the industry standards for safety and are willing to continually revise them. What is the difference between the two examples (GMOs vs. automobiles)? Is it because cars are obviously unnatural and you know what you are getting as a consumer?

Johnna

* Inasmuch as I have an agenda- normally my agenda consists of a continually growing to do list of personal and professional items that must be done each day, but I actually only accomplish a small percentage of them. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of some groups insists that scientists must have an agenda.

** This is why scientists view genetic engineering as only the next step in the evolution of agricultural practices.  As far as just the science is concerned: if people are OK with genetic variation and alteration performed in a more random or haphazard way, why isn’t genetic engineering acceptable? It may be a difference in perspective. Many people seem to regard genetic engineering as a new line that we are crossing that maybe we shouldn’t be. On the other hand, scientists view the previous forms of genetic modification as a line we have crossed a long time ago.

Further reading, GMO news links:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/sunday-review/golden-rice-lifesaver.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2013/08/26/why-genetically-modifying-food-is-a-bad-idea/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/08/27/science-and-gmos-are-not-the-bad-guys-here/

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/321700/scitech/science/debunking-golden-rice-myths-a-geneticist-s-perspective

http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/GEessays/goldenricehoax.html

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/from-mark-lynas-to-michael-pollan-agreement-that-golden-rice-trials-should-proceed/?smid=tw-share

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/a-race-to-save-the-orange-by-altering-its-dna.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://grist.org/food/orange-you-ready-for-a-tall-glass-of-gmos/

http://www.tedxnavesink.com/should-we-save-the-orange-with-gmo/

http://hawaiitribune-herald.com/sections/news/local-news/papaya-gmo-success-story.html

http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2013/08/05/19629-papaya-nightmares-a-farmer-struggles-amid-hawaiis-gmo-debate/

Current GM Crops and Possible Futures

UPDATE: This is part of a series on GMOs. Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.

In my last post, I described the generalities of genetically modifying organisms by a variety of methods. Today, let’s talk specifics about currently cultivated GM crops. The overwhelming majority of GM crops have been engineered for herbicide- or pest-resistance or both. These traits were relatively easy to engineer because the modes of action were well understood because of years of previous studies and they each require only a single gene to confer. When I posted about the GMO numbers, these are the engineered traits that have been introduced into commodity crops like corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets.

Herbicide Resistance

The herbicide glyphosate, marketed under the trademark RoundUp, specifically targets an enzyme plants use in their biochemical pathway for making a class of amino acids (essential building blocks of proteins) along with other important plant hormones and electron carriers. The enzyme is called 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase, but we’ll just call it EPSPS for short. EPSPS is found only in plants and microbes and not in animals (we have to eat plants to acquire the class of amino acids produced in the EPSPS pathway). Glyphosate is easily absorbed through leaves and most effective on actively growing plants. It effectively inhibits EPSPS and plants have a difficult time metabolizing glyphosate into anything less toxic. Some crop plants have been genetically engineered with a bacterial version of the EPSPS, which is not susceptible to glyphosate. In this case the EPSPS transgene encodes an enzyme to replace one that the plant already makes. No new biochemistry is gained, only the ability to bypass this otherwise lethal inhibitor. This means that fields of genetically engineered ‘RoundUp Ready’ plants can be sprayed with glyphosate to stop the growth of all surrounding weeds leaving the GM plants impervious to the treatment.

Pest Resistance

The pest resistance is conferred by a toxic protein produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that has been used in pest control for decades. The bacteria make this pesticidal protein that crystallizes within their cells. When the crystals are ingested by insects (like cotton bollworms or corn borers) the toxic proteins are activated within their acidic digestive tracts where they destroy the insects from the inside out. Bt in various forms (sprays, wettable powders etc) has been used for agricultural pest control for decades and is approved for use in organic farming. Many safety studies have been conducted on Bt toxins, and they have reported few if any negative effects of Bt on humans or the environment. Given its effectiveness and long history of safety, crop plants have been engineered to produce the pesticidal Bt protein in their cells to eliminate the need to spray the crops with Bt or other pesticide formulations. In this case, the plants have acquired a truly novel protein. It doesn’t add any biochemistry to the plants, but offers them protection from insects. While there is a long history of safety with use of Bt, these Bt-plants produce the Bt pesticidal protein in every cell and this cannot be washed away as it can be when used as a spray.

Disease Resistance

Plants can be susceptible to diseases (viral or bacterial) in the same way that humans and other animals can be. Plant diseases can be particularly devastating to agriculturally important crops. When it comes to battling plant diseases, genetic engineering represents an efficient way to get an edge over the pathogens. Sometimes traditional breeding just isn’t fast enough or doesn’t provide the tools necessary to confer resistance in time to save an industry. This is especially true in the context of fruit production where breeding and testing fruit trees takes years. One success story for genetic engineering disease resistance comes from the papaya. The papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) was devastating the Hawaiian papaya industry. Researchers at Cornell and the University of Hawaii were able to develop a genetically engineered papaya that contained a small amount of PRSV DNA which provides the plants with immunity to the virus. The original transgenic papaya variety was called SunUp, but it could be crossed with non-transgenic plants to yield better hybrid papayas designated the UH Rainbow variety.

These traits do wonders for the industrial scale farming of these crops, without adding or detracting nutritional value. It’s why (in the U.S.) our processed foods and meat products are so cheap.* It’s also very lucrative business for the companies that sell the seeds to farmers. It’s the acme of capitalism when sometimes the company that sells you the engineered seeds can also sell you the complementary agrochemical.** Clearly, these examples were the first on the market and have gained an enormous market share within our major crop species. Without discounting too much of the science that went into creating these varieties, these traits represent the low-hanging fruit of the transgenic world (single gene transfers conferring profitable traits).

The future of genetic engineering gets much more complicated. Scientists will continue to work with farmers to combat the issues they face in production (disease and pest resistance), but this will always be (as it has been throughout history) an escalating arms race between plants and their diseases and pests. The other problems scientists would like to address include things like getting plants to have higher yields, use nutrients more efficiently (aka use less fertilizer), and have higher drought tolerance. These traits are much more complicated involving multiple genes, which are likely to vary more among different plant species (meaning there won’t likely be a one-size-fits-all solution universal for all plants). Beyond optimizing these production-related issues with our crop plants, scientists would also like to engineer plants with increased nutrition or flavor. Again, these are more complicated traits that would require more sophisticated manipulations. When it comes to engineering these types of ‘next generation’ traits, scientists will likely be taking advantage of the wealth of genetic diversity within the plant kingdom.

In my next post, I’d like to cover some examples of ‘next generation’ GM food plants on the horizon.

Johnna

* Whether our food system should be optimized for cost efficiency to the exclusion of all other virtues is a completely separate discussion. We’ll get into more details on these larger issues in our modern agricultural system, but suffice it to say that eliminating the use of genetic engineering will result in a higher cost for our food (either through money or increased labor energy). My intent is simply to describe the facts of our current system with respect to these plants. Obviously, our food system has many less-than-appetizing features, but they go unnoticed in our bountiful modern grocery stores filled with cheap food on every aisle.

** It’s the real-life equivalent of owning Park Place or Broadway with three hotels. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, right?

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glyphosate

http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?seq_no_115=204435

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_thuringiensis

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05556.html

http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/

http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/bt_crop.html

http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/NPH-1.pdf

http://www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Pages/PapayaHawaiianRainbow.aspx

http://www.hawaiipapaya.com/rainbow.htm

GMOs, a Preface

UPDATE: Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.

I started this blog about plant biology and photosynthetic organisms to engage the public with respect to modern research in these areas and the potential for this science to improve everyday life. So, I feel it’s time to address the elephant in the room of modern plant science: GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Yes, we are going to go there. I am sensitive to the fact that this subject evokes powerful emotions in many people. While it may usually be framed as having only two sides (yes vs. no), the use of GMOs in agriculture is a more complex, multi-faceted issue. I plan on addressing the various aspects of GMOs in a series of blog posts over the course of the next few weeks. Today’s post is merely a preface to map out the specifics to be covered and explicitly mention the premises underlying the GMO issue.

Here’s how the series of posts will break down*:

  1. The GMO numbers
  2. The science behind making GMO plants
  3. Regulation of GMOs: Testing and Approval
  4. GMOs as part of our modern food system
  5. Issues of intellectual property protection for GMOs
  6. GMO labeling
  7. Future GMO potential

When it comes to GMOs, I think it’s fair to say that their implementation and use has been less-than-transparent to the general public. The resulting shock has aroused generalized suspicion and automatic rejection. With this series, I propose opening a frank discussion about GMOs and our wider food system because, as ‘eaters,’ we are all stakeholders within it. A basic premise within this topic is that humans are demanding more of plants than ever before. We need plants to produce nutritionally dense food with higher yields on less land from fewer inputs in the face of increasingly erratic environmental conditions.

Another underlying premise for this issue is the fact that humans have been optimizing plants for desirable characteristics for millennia. This synergistic relationship between humans and plants is a basic tenet of agriculture. For an assortment of reasons, the wild varieties of plants are insufficient.** Yields could be too low, flavors not sweet enough, seeds not high enough in oil content, growing seasons could be too long, plants could be chilling-intolerant or their pollination heat-sensitive, on and on. Much work has been done by generations of farmers to push plants towards something better for human needs. They have selected the most useful traits and cultivated them with great care. This is why Silver King Hybrid corn doesn’t just sprout on its own in fields. Even heirloom varieties like Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Black Beauty eggplants don’t just grow wild in our plains or forests (although, volunteers can sometimes be found in compost piles). No, this is not where I’m going to say that GMOs are equivalent to these past manipulations, and the argument should be ended thusly, but they are an evolution of this tradition.

With the world population increasing ever closer to the 9 billion mark expected to occur around the year 2050, now, more than ever, is the time to reassess the inner workings of our global food system to ensure food security for all of us. Therefore, we need to develop strategies that will meet these demands- quickly. There will be no singular magic bullet solution. GMOs should not be seen as such. I do not feel qualified to elaborate on the efficacy of all components of our modern food supply chain, but it is my opinion that there is room for improvement at all levels. In modern society, too many of us have become too disconnected from what we are eating and where it came from. For the sake of convenience, we have created a giant blind spot in the food system where things like optimal nutrition, environmental sustainability, economic exploitation and food safety can be obscured. It’s time to start talking about this.

Of course, the broader repercussions of how our food system functions are not lost on me. Eating is more than just ingesting sufficient calories. It is a deeply personal experience entwined with our social customs.

“Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” -Henry Kissinger

Alas, our modern agricultural system conveniently entangles both of these issues. With great power comes great responsibility, right? We have enjoyed the economic advantages of the system for too long without being accountable for the larger problems it perpetuates. The science related to what we eat is only a small piece of the puzzle, but it has come to embody all that is wrong with our modern food system. This is an oversimplification that has unfortunately pitted groups against one another when, in fact, they should be working together toward better solutions.

Johnna

* There may be more posts depending on how the conversation develops.

** Don’t get me wrong. There are some examples that are truly extraordinary. I personally am a fan of wild blackberries. I am fortunate enough to have acres of pastureland being overtaken by them. They are delicious enough to make me risk close encounters with snakes and West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. For cobbler and jelly, there just is nothing better. However, they are small, seedy, and thorny. I understand why horticulturists have tried to tame newer varieties with larger berries and fewer thorns.

Plant Appreciation Day

Today’s post is all about getting you to think about your dependence on plants. Plants tend to be a silent bunch, enduring whatever nature throws their way without much protest. Yet, they are the foundation of our biological system. They provide us with so many useful things- food, shelter, clothing, fuel, medicines etc. Despite their importance to our lives, we tend to take them for granted. As a rule, plants aren’t very assertive and they lag in the cuteness department compared to baby seals and rhinos. So, they tend to be invisible to us. We don’t generally hold benefits or 5K’s in their honor, and plants don’t have an awareness ribbon.

So, let’s make today Plant Appreciation Day. Your homework assignment is to make a list of all the plant products you use for a day or longer if you would like.* You don’t have to e-mail it to me or post it in the comments section below (unless you just want to for bonus points). A mental list is fine. Just be aware of the plants in your life.

Can’t think of anything just now? Take a deep breath. That oxygen was brought to you by the Earth’s photosynthetic organisms. You’re welcome. I’m also sitting at a wooden table with cotton cloth covered chair cushions while drinking apple juice. You get the idea.

Now imagine if those plants didn’t exist. What if only one type of plant went extinct? What if it were coffee? There would be massive rioting in the streets. Plant diseases are major threats to our global food system. There have been a couple of recent articles related to plant disease that highlight our constant struggle against plant pathogens. One is on citrus greening, a bacterial disease that is decimating our citrus groves. The bacteria are spread by flies, and growers need to use more pesticides to keep it at bay. Even with the extra chemical warfare, orange groves are suffering. Since no natural resistance has been found in our citrus varieties and dramatic losses are occurring at an alarming rate, the only hope for saving our orange juice may be a transgenic solution.** Another article is from Aeon Magazine by Ed Yong about diseases of cocoa trees that are spread by ants and their mealybug herds. Cocoa = chocolate. Yes, there may be a looming problem with the chocolate supply. Here’s a great quote from that article to put plant disease in perspective:

‘We’re set up for catastrophe, and we’re not talking about it,’ Hughes told me. He blames our urbanised culture. With so much time spent away from the natural world, and so many steps between our farms and our plates, we have lost a tangible connection with what we eat. ‘We live in a land of milk and honey. We’re so divorced from our food that we’re not even knowledgeable enough to be scared about the problems in getting it. We’re not thinking about the next AIDS of plants.’

But it’s not the plants alone that we have to worry about. While the above examples showed the problems that insects can cause for our plants, there are also plenty of beneficial insects that plants need. The most obvious plant-friendly insects are bees, but the news isn’t so great on that front either. We are losing our bees at an alarming rate. Check out this recent post by Paige Brown at SciLogs that summarizes the different causes contributing to bee population decline. Here’s another article describing how the loss of just one type of pollinator will negatively affect plant pollination. In case you are unconvinced of the importance of bees, check out this graphic that Whole Foods put together to show you what your produce section would look like without them.

Credit: Whole Foods

Credit: Whole Foods

So while you are appreciating the plants you use every day, take the time to appreciate the scientists that have also been working silently along side them.

Johnna

*Some of my fellow plant biologists are already ahead of the game, since they have been working on this assignment during the annual ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists) this year #PlantBiology2013.

**I recommend reading the article before making any decisions on the existence of GMO oranges. It also has nothing to do with Monsanto. But, on that note, I will be doing a series of posts on GMOs next week. So save any GMO-specific comments for those posts.