Amelia Freidline, copy chief
Amelia Freidline, copy chief
As a produce journalist you learn to keep a weather eye out for any permutation of “fruit” or “vegetable” that might crop up when scanning the mainstream media’s headlines of the day. 
 
I was trawling through The Wall Street Journal in mid-February when I came across the headline “We’re long overdue for tasty Frankenveggies.” 
 
In an age where news of a new variety of anything is likely to be greeted with “But is this GMO?” I was surprised by this, then intrigued ... and then I fell for the click bait.
 
Writer Joe Queenan starts his “Moving Targets” column off relating that University of Florida horticultural science professor Harry Klee and some of his colleagues recently talked about tomato breeding in the journal Science, explaining what produced some less-than-exciting tomatoes in the past and their efforts to ensure delicious varieties in the future.
 
“The researchers have been careful to use old-fashioned breeding methods, not bioengineering, to create delicious tomatoes from available commercial and heirloom varieties. They didn’t want the usual suspects to raise the alarm about deadly Frankenmatoes,” Queenan wrote.
 
The genetically modified Flavr Savr tomato was a little before my time as grocery purchaser (plus I was a tomato skeptic in my youth), but I’ve heard plenty of stories about it from Packer colleagues. While supply issues, and not anti-GMO furor, were what eventually canned the tomato, I can just imagine the field day the Internet would have with the Flavr Savr if it were introduced today.
 
But back to Queenan. 
 
“Here I believe that the scientists have erred on the side of caution,” he continued. “Frankenveggies and fruits might be just what the doctor ordered for a society too long deprived of vegetal variety and nuance. Celery hasn’t excited anyone in 400 years. Store-bought carrots are vile.”
 
It was at this point I realized his column was all about satire. 
 
He goes on to suggest researchers “haul out the really big genetic guns” to produce “improved” Brussels sprouts that taste like Cool Ranch Doritos, or iceberg lettuce that tastes like ice cream. 
 
“And it’s not just taste that needs to be altered,” he said. “Children would beg for that plate of yams if they were pink and purple instead of hideous orange.”
 
Well, there he’s hit upon something no one even has to genetically modify to achieve — purple sweet potatoes already exist.
 
Queenan’s column, produce slanders aside, is all in good fun. But genetically engineered flavors or color traits might not be as far-out as he makes it seem.

Whether spicy tomatoes or vodka-scented artichokes are possible is not really the point — would science-skeptical consumers buy them? 

 
Another piece from the Journal (this one serious) called “DIY Gene Editing: Fast, Cheap — and Worrisome,” describes how amateur or “hobby” scientists can take classes in how to use the CRISPR gene-editing technique. You can even buy a DIY bacteria gene-editing kit online for $150, WSJ’s Amy Dockser Marcus writes. 
 
CRISPR is already being explored for serious produce applications, as we’ve covered several times in The Packer. Researchers at Penn State University developed a non-browning mushroom using the technique. 
 
Scientists at New York-based Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory used CRISPR to produce cherry and roma tomato plants whose fruit ripened two weeks earlier than that of normal plants. 
 
And some members of Florida’s citrus industry think citrus greening (also known as huanglongbing) may eventually be defeated through HLB-resistant plants developed with CRISPR tweaking.
 
But some people are using CRISPR on produce just for fun, too. At the Genspace community lab in New York, the WSJ’s Marcus writes, director Will Shindel is working on a hobby project to make a spicy tomato via the technology. And chemical engineer Kevin Wallenstein, another CRISPR hobbyist who uses the Genspace lab, “wants to eventually use it to edit a gene in an edible fruit that he prefers not to name, to restore it to its historical color,” Marcus says.
 
Neither Shindel nor Wallenstein intends his resulting product for commercial use, according to the Journal.
 
If spicy tomatoes could be achieved with CRISPR, then why not Queenan’s suggestion of “a hybrid artichoke with a fragrant bouquet of Stoli”?
 
(Why anyone would want that might be a better question.)
 
And that, really, is the nitty-gritty issue. Whether spicy tomatoes or vodka-scented artichokes are possible is not really the point — would science-skeptical consumers buy them? Are the benefits — or novelty — of a CRISPR product significant enough to shoppers to outweigh any concerns about the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? And significant enough to enough shoppers to make the product worth producing?
 
Time, and further experimentation, will tell. 
 
Meanwhile, somebody tell Joe Queenan where he can buy purple sweet potatoes.
 
Amelia Freidline is The Packer’s copy chief and Opinion page editor. E-mail her at afreidline@farmjournal.com.
 
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