To all you fellow moms out there who want to know where your produce comes from: this post is for you. I recently traveled to Felda, Florida for a farm field day hosted by Seminis, the world’s largest developer of fruit and vegetable seeds. More on how plant breeding helps farmers grow tastier produce, here.
Disclosure: Bayer Crop Science sponsored my travel to Felda, Florida. I was not compensated for this blog post, and, as always, opinions are my own.
If you’re familiar with the content here on EFEL, it’s no secret that I’m what you might call a supporter of modern agriculture. As a mother first and dietitian second, I see biotechnology quite simply as a way to feed children who are less fortunate than mine, while preserving the environment and utilizing it to its fullest potential to provide for its population. The notion sounds overtly idyllic and it’s a viewpoint that’s met with much skepticism in a suburb of New York City.
So, when friends from Bayer Crop Science invited me to see some of this modern plant breeding and other environmentally-sustainable farm practices up close and personal, I jumped at the opportunity. In addition to viewing the latest and greatest in soil testing, mechanized planting, and Nordic farm robots (seriously!), I had the chance to tour some actual crops with Jonathan Mein, PhD, one of Seminis’ scientists.
If you’re on the east coast and you enjoy pickles (on the side of a burger, maybe?) or crisp, unblemished bell peppers chock full of vitamin C, chances are you have a Seminis seed - and someone like Mein - to thank. So, what exactly is plant breeding, and why exactly should we be thankful? Moreover, is it “natural”? Let’s clear that up right away.
“We’re not doing anything that doesn’t happen in nature - we’re giving nature the best opportunity to show its best face,” says Mein.
The aforementioned bell pepper is a perfect example. About ten years ago, farmers were plagued by bacterial leaf spot - a crippling disease with the potential to wipe out entire crops.
“Farming is all about risk,” Mein explains. “There are only so many things you can control - what seed variety you use, which fertilizer…but you can’t control the weather and disease pressures in a given year. “
Finding a gene within the bell pepper (referred to as X10R) that offers resistance to this specific disease enabled breeders to combine different varieties and eventually produce what’s currently found in stores: strong, smooth, nutritious bell peppers.
“The farmer has to ask, ‘do I have the right products that are going to save my crop?’ X10R was the difference between farmers having produce to sell or not. They don’t have to worry about bacterial leaf spot the way they used to,” says Mein.
Thank goodness! My family enjoys bell peppers nearly every day of the week. Did you know an average-sized bell pepper provides nearly twice the amount of vitamin c as a small orange? And the Rodriguez clan isn’t the only one chowing down: according to Statista, the per capita consumption of bell peppers in the United States was 11.4 pounds in 2017.
Plant breeding doesn’t all come down to disease resistance - most often, breeders are working to please us, the consumers. Do you enjoy sweet tomatoes? Firm, seedless watermelon? A lot of that comes down to breeding. Take the tomato as an example.
“A wild tomato is entirely different from what we commonly consume. But at some point, there was a genetic mutation. Someone tasted it, enjoyed it, saved the seeds, and each generation produced something slightly different,” says Mein. Now, breeders can cross an orange tomato with a red one, and figure out which genetics will be favored before the plant is even in the seedling stage by tracking “snips” which determine shape, size, and color. The outcome? More varieties of tomatoes to please every palate and suit a variety of recipe needs.
When you think about it, plant breeding isn’t much different from, well, people.
“Breeding in general is not specific to plants. It’s all about taking the qualities you like in two things and reproducing them,” explains Mein. “Offspring is continually refined. Humans do it, right? We select partners based on certain parameters. In plants, the breeding is more controlled but it’s driven by the need to deliver what the consumer wants.”
Well said, Dr. Mein.
Whichever veggies you choose to eat, the more, the better.
Enjoy your food. Enjoy your life!