Atomic mutant fruit is perfectly ‘organic’
- Ivo Vegter
- 11 Apr 2017 01:06 (South Africa)
It may surprise you that organic beer made with Golden Promise barley and organic Star Ruby grapefruit, like much of the world’s beans and rice, come from plant varieties that were created by bombardment with nuclear radiation. They’re mutants, with several traits that are beneficial to producers and who knows how many other, unexamined traits.
Improving the agricultural and nutritional qualities of food crops had, for centuries, been a laborious, haphazard and slow process. For most of history, it was a process of selecting plants for favourable traits, which slowly improved the plant by what one might call unnatural selection.
In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel conducted experiments with hybrid plants, founding the science of genetics. Based on this work, cross-breeding began to be used by farmers, anxious to increase the yield and hardiness of their crops. For every successful strain produced by cross-breeding, there were very many failures, but by the mid-20th century, hybrid seeds and new varieties were leading to a revolution in agriculture. The application of genetics to agriculture dramatically increased the production of wheat, rice and other staple crops throughout the world.
The father of this revolution was Norman Borlaug. Having studied plant pathology and genetics, he went on to work for DuPont as a microbiologist, before taking an agricultural research position in Mexico in the early 1940s under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. There, he would develop high-yielding, drought-resistant and disease-resistant strains of wheat. Combining these new varieties with modern agiculture techniques such as nitrogen fertilisation, Borlaug turned Mexico into a net wheat exporter within 20 years.
By 1960, other developing countries, notably India and Pakistan, had become the subject of prophesies of mass starvation, based on the Malthusian idea that agriculture simply could not keep up with their rapidly growing populations. When Borlaug turned his attentions to Asia, it took five years to double these countries’ wheat output, proving the prophets of doom wrong.
In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, which had become known as the “Green Revolution”. Some say he saved hundreds of millions of lives. Others say it was a billion. But it is indisputable that Borlaug’s embrace of genetics in breeding new crop strains and his advocacy of modern agricultural technology successfully kept malnutrition and starvation at bay for the rapidly growing population of the world in the 20th century, especially in poor countries.
The Green Revolution had its critics, of course. Many early environmentalists bemoaned the use of chemicals to fertilise crops or combat pests. They yearned for a mythical, idyllic state of nature, in which happy peasants farmed plentiful crops without the benefit of modern technology. The only problem is such a past never existed, and even if it did, could never feed the modern world’s growing population. It was an idle fantasy that only the wealthy could indulge.
Borlaug had no time for them: “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. They have never produced a ton of food. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 60 years, they’d be crying out for fertiliser, herbicides, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
Borlaug’s early techniques were fraught with difficulty, however. It was hard to predict the results of cross-breeding different varieties. To develop the wheat strains that would prove so revolutionary, he created tens of thousands of strains that turned out to be worthless.
After the Second World War, the American government launched a programme known as “Atoms for Peace”. Its goal was to divert war-time research into nuclear technology to peace-time applications. Among the projects under this banner, one of the most notable was the Atomic Gardens movement.
Started as a government project to experiment with the effects of radioactivity on crops and other plants, atomic gardens soon made headline news and gained popularity around the world. Advertisements in popular publications extolled the virtues of “atomic-energised seeds” and “true radioactive soil conditioner”.
In a typical atomic garden, crops were grown in a circle composed of wedges – not dissimilar to today’s radiation warning sign – around a central source of radiation. Cobalt-60, an emitter of gamma radiation, was commonly used. To protect workers and control the amount of radiation to which plants were exposed, the source of radiation could be retracted into a lead container underground.
The radiation would kill plants close to the source, but further away it would merely induce mutations. From these random mutations, crops with beneficial properties would be selected for further breeding. Other techniques to induce DNA damage, like X-rays and chemical exposure, also proved successful. Many different plants were treated in this manner, including maize, wheat, barley, peaches, grapes, blueberries and grapefruit.
This process of inducing mutations in a plant’s DNA was much faster than waiting for mutations to arise spontaneously due to radiation from the sun. Today, atomic gardens still exist, and more than 2,700 different cultivars have their origin in induced mutations, or what geneticists call “mutagenesis”.
Among these cultivars are the Star Ruby grapefruit and Golden Promise barley, noted at the start. They are often certified organic, despite the fact that organic crops must be free of GMOs. Absurdly, scrambling a plant’s genetic makeup into a mutation that happens to have a few desirable qualities does not constitute genetic modification according to organic food regulations, so farmers are free to label their mutagenic crops as organic, and health nuts happily dig into mutant fruit, veggies, wine and beer.
Of course, the modern way to produce new strains or cultivars involves far more advanced techniques of genetic engineering. When you cross-breed varieties or subject plants to radiation, you can only hope that the random outcomes include a few favourable traits. Instead, scientists can now target very specific genes that are known to be associated with particular traits. This allows them to insert genes designed to change only the traits that they want, without affecting anything else.
This virtually eliminates potential health risks, which were uncommon but not implausible with cross-breeding or mutagenesis. Compared to the hammer of 19th-century cross-breeding and the sledgehammer of 20th-century mutagenesis, 21st-century genetic engineering, known as “transgenesis”, is more akin to a scalpel.
A scientific study comparing mutagenesis with transgenic gene insertion found that the latter is more precise and less likely to produce unintended consequences than the genetic gambling of the past. Conversely, it argues that new breeds produced by mutagenesis, which have escaped the notice of regulators and organic health nuts alike, ought to be held to the same health standards as modern transgenic GMO crops.
The irrational and fact-free campaign against genetic engineering has had some ironic consequences. In Europe, a populist ban on GMO food crops has thrown the market wide open to producers that use older, less accurate, and more hazardous techniques to create desirable traits in food crops – such as mutagenesis by means of nuclear radiation. Under the guise of food safety, egged on by misguided activists, Europe has actually made its food less safe. (To be fair, the risk with mutagenic crops remains trivial.)
The campaign against GMO foods is led by rich people who can afford plentiful, high-quality food themselves. They ignore that without the crude genetic modification of the past, vast numbers of people would have starved or suffered chronic malnutrition. And without the fine genetic modification of today, the same fate may still befall the world’s poor.
Not that they’d care, of course. Green extremists are not renowned for their concern for humanity. If they could, they’d happily sacrifice modern technology and send us all back to the filthy, brutal and deadly world of medieval farming peasantry. And if we starve, they’d cheer, because that would reduce the overpopulation problem that features so prominently in their nightmares. At heart, they hate humanity.
But perhaps it would sober them to know that when they savour the certified-organic delights of Star Ruby grapefruit or Golden Promise pale ale, they are supping on the fruit of genetic modification by bombardment with nuclear radiation. The same is true for thousands of other varieties of fruit, cereals and vegetables that qualify for an organic label.
All this just goes to show that the organic world view is based on instinctive fear of progress and anti-scientific ignorance. We shouldn’t take them seriously, and neither should our policy-makers. DM