Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chief
Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chief

Japanese electronics maker Fujitsu Ltd. is growing high-tech lettuce in a semiconductor manufacturing plant.

That should be enough to send anti-GMO activists into a tizzy, but there is no genetic modification going on at all.

Instead, a group of engineers are producing low-potassium lettuce that can be eaten by patients suffering from kidney disease or those undergoing dialysis, who must restrict potassium intake.

Thanks to news aggregator Flipboard, I saw a Wall Street Journal blog story about the project in May, another online story from Popular Science and another article on the Japan Times about it.

According to the Japan Times article, this lettuce has about 100 milligrams of potassium per 100 grams, while normal lettuce has about 490 milligrams of potassium per 100 grams. It also has fewer nitrates than normal lettuce and so tastes less bitter.

Fujitsu isn’t giving up on making and selling computer chips, but the company expects to make money with its low-potassium lettuce, which sells for a good premium over normal lettuce, according to news reports. The low-potassium lettuce is the first product of its Kirei Yasai (Clean Vegetable) line.

The lettuce was developed with a patent held by Akita Prefectural University, but it is the engineers who are making it a marketable product. They renovated part of a room at the plant that was virtually dust-free, germ-free and hidden from sunlight. There are no pests in the sealed-off room, so no pesticides are needed.

It seems like quite a set up. The pictures I have seen show two researchers wrapped in disposable clothing, with their feet in disposable booties, heads covered, and masks over their faces. The lights and plants and everything look meticulous, which I would expect from a bunch of engineers trying their hand at lettuce production.

“Our engineers gave the same attention to the vegetable that they give to a semiconductor,” a spokeswoman at Fujitsu was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal blog.

We have a romanticized vision of hybridizers who create the varieties of produce items brought to market.

At the same time, I think we neglect to lay wreaths at the feet of the scientists and engineers who make production possible. It is tough to find the hook in a story like that to interest people outside the produce industry.

Also, consumers like to think about “farmers” producing our food, and that seems to give short shrift to the whole spectrum of what goes into production of fresh vegetables and fruit. Perhaps concern about letting competitors know about a company’s processes also plays into the anti-scientist and anti-engineering bias. At some level, perhaps a fear of seeming immodest keeps us from talking about amazing parts of production.

However, if we were able to share more about the wondrous production process, perhaps consumers would feel more at ease about genetically modified food.

Perhaps the hundreds of pictures out there illustrating GMO food with a picture of a tomato with dozens of syringes stuck into it would then seem as silly to them as it is in reality.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.