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Welcome to the 20s. Let’s Roar.

A century ago, the Roaring 20s ushered in an era of innovation, prosperity, cultural and societal change. These movements were not a choreographed affair, heading neatly in one direction. They surged this way and that, pushing against the boundaries of how life had been before the First World War. We are welcoming the new decade with optimism, with the belief that diversity of thought and purpose can shake us loose from an agricultural system born of the Second World War. With that in mind, let’s start with the basics.

Producing GMOs 

The vast majority of the GMO crops grown in North America are grown for animal feed or biofuel, with some crops undergoing processing for convenience-ready foods. As such, you’d think the grocery store produce section was a relatively safe territory, GMO-wise. But there’s a growing movement to employ new genetic engineering techniques to extend the shelf life and portability of some of the basics, like apples, lettuce, and potatoes. Proponents of new GMOs reference problems such as food waste and food deserts — two very real and serious issues  — to justify the modification of staple foods.

But are GMOs the best solutions?

Does the food that is deliberately engineered for longevity really qualify as “fresh” anymore? At best this is one of those “solutions” that appears to address a problem but really swaps out one problem for another. 

Crisp, not CRISPR

The magic is lost with new GMO creations like the Arctic non-browning apples. Genetic modification favors uniformity over variety, shelf life over taste. Heirloom varieties are the product of generations of breeding, expert cultivation, and devoted soil stewardship. Nature, thankfully, prefers diversity, giving us an apple for every occasion. If slicing an apple ahead of time and not having it brown is a priority for you, go with the Opal apple, bred using traditional methods for that trait. 

It’s Not Easy Being Greens

Not until I began to get to know small farmers did I learn that “greens” weren’t synonymous with lack-luster lettuce — there were brassicas, chards, and spicy mustard greens, sweet spinach and beet greens. How these crops tasted when they were fresh, truly fresh, was worlds away from the glorified tissue-paper-veggies of my youth. 

The fact that Romaine lettuce GMO — engineered for longer shelf life — takes us in entirely the wrong direction. Genetically modifying lettuce for longer shelf life doesn’t make vegetables more accessible, it makes more people hate vegetables.

Greens are like bread: they deteriorate from peak perfection by the hour, and tasting the truly fresh can change your whole world view. Travel, storage and delivery times cost dearly in terms of flavor, texture, and nutrient value. Harnessing the ability to deliver limp, lifeless and nutrient-depleted Romaine across space and time benefits no one. 

In Praise of Farmers

Unequal access to fresh produce is a huge problem, as is food waste. Then there’s that uniquely western phenomenon of nutrient deficiency and obesity occurring side-by-side. But what if we took all the time and money that goes into engineering an immortal lettuce leaf and put it towards supporting local food growers? If instead of driving the color out of our apples, we put that expertise toward rebuilding biodiversity?

Applying GMO solutions to systemic problems only addresses the tip of the iceberg lettuce. It doesn’t touch root causes. For that, we need to: grow and buy local; value and compensate the contributions made by our hard-working farmers, and treasure the diversity and brilliance of the seeds they steward for our benefit.

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