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Egenis · News

Perfection In Plant Breeding



University of Maryland Professor, Harry Swartz is currently engaged on a quest: growing the perfect strawberry, as reported in the Washington Post. He sees it as is a complicated problem; according to him it should be sweet, firm (for shipping) and big (for easier harvesting). Swartz has added another level of complexity by dreaming of a fruit that could be harvested quickly and efficiently by machine, rather than picked painstakingly by hand. That means plants with one berry per stalk, sticking up straight so it can be scooped up easily, not low-growing clusters of berries that ripen at different times.

Egenis researcher Matt Reed points out that this notion of perfection relies on commercial interests. “To achieve his idea of perfection Harry Swartz is suggesting that strawberries are genetically engineered. In his quest for perfection in a fruit, he’s selecting for qualities that suit the industry rather than what will suit the consumer.”

And there is a lot of money to be made. The strawberry industry churned out $1.5 billion worth of berries in the US last year, primarily from fields in Florida and California that keep strawberries in stores all year. Worldwide, China now rivals the United States as the largest producer of the fruit.

Flawless food found in supermarkets has often travelled thousands of miles and may have been bred to survive long journeys, but Dr Reed remains unconvinced that homogenous mass produced food suits everyone.

“The question is do we want perfection in our food? Because so often we are presented with fruit, vegetables and meat that is supposedly aesthetically perfect, with flawless skin, uniform shape, as if that were perfection. But when most of us think of our perfect eating experience, it’s much more complicated.

It may not have anything to do with aesthetic perfection, but experiencing different varieties or eating something that you’ve grown yourself or grown near you, can be more important to the consumer than Prof. Swartz’s concerns. A strawberry grown nearby is fresh, and it might be a variety that couldn’t survive being taken very far. It may not be perfect to look at but those eating the strawberries may value it because of its imperfections. And of course the taste is important!”

Swartz realizes he may be stretching too much to create this ideal berry, laughing nervously when he admits there may be big issues like consumer resistance to genetically engineered food. "The perfect strawberry is the one that makes you money," he said.

Dr Reed has a different perspective, even citing factors beyond the control of the breeders that might contribute to a perfect eating experience:

“The perfect meal might be more to do with the context, the company, the whole social experience. That one variety of strawberry might be ‘perfect’ for all of us, and Prof Swartz is thinking of consumers across three continents, seems like the dream that food companies pursued in the last century and even they are backing away from.”