Nutritious Food For Thought

When we think of vegetables & fruits in their raw form, we would rightly associate them with the concept of “nutrition”. “But of course!” you might say, “Nutrition is one of the inherent core motivations behind organic gardening & farming!” Superb. You are a reader of The Natural Farmer, I am writing an article for The Natural Farmer, we should understand each other. Nutrition is our unspoken password when we grow, eat, and promote local food.

So, first off, blunt question: if a vegetable does not taste good, could we say it is nutritious? I can breed something that, in theory, has all sorts of healthy “thingies”…but if it is bland or “meh”, you can trust that variety will be out of the seed trade in a few years. I could even develop a new “super food” variety that will cure hemorrhoids and fascism. But, if that veggie or fruit is naturally infused with gross texture and metallic flavor, middle aged men will still be walking gingerly and the alt-right will still be vetting various designs for walls. And yes I am lumping texture and flavor into the concept of “taste”.

So, for something to be nutritious in the real world sense, it must taste good. If we are unwilling to consume something regularly, its nutritional qualities are irrelevant. Yes, I know “good” is from the tongue of a beholder, and also that “taste” is hogwash in our sugar-addicted society. But that is the world. Please, let’s discard idealism for a moment: our senses tell us that what tastes like a duck is a duck. At this moment, you are hearing the angry screams of a hundred overly attached passionate breeders & researchers who have been stymied in their plans to save the world thru “better food”…stymied by our stubborn tongues.

Further, we should always assess the concept of “nutritional content” in the context of the overall useful harvest. For example, let’s imagine that a certain apple variety has exceptional nutritional content. We often find the traits that offer exceptional nutritional content come at the cost of yield or broad adaption. So while this “super food” apple might hold a hoard of benefit, it may also be a shy bearer of fruit. Taken as a whole block of trees, another less “power packed”, normal apple that yields well is actually delivering more nutritional value per yearly harvest. Harvest metrics obviously affect cost of produce, and limit profitable adoption by growers of the theoretical “super” apple. Broad adoption and yield performance are the ideal in our modern agriculture, rightly or wrongly.

But the “super” apple can find value as a breeding parent! Combining our imaginary “pumped up” apple with the good yield of an easier to grow variety mirrors the blueprint of 90% of the last century of crop improvement.

The time-consuming process of crop improvement is often the place where the real world collides with research papers about unique amino acids etc. and all their glories. If a crop or variety is susceptible to diseases, insects, stress, literally go ahead and forget its name. Hard to germinate, hard to tell when it’s consistently ripe for harvest, or needing an out-scaled level of TLC and fertility versus the yield? Or requires such intuitive skill and unique climate that its production is limited to one singular place on the globe? Sure, maybe that variety becomes a whispered about darling of collectors and connoisseurs, but again, very unlikely to be consumed regularly. So, for something to be nutritious in a real world sense, it must taste good AND perform well in the agricultural system of its culture / time. To consume a tasty nutritious variety regularly, we must be able to grow it with competence.

“Well,” you interject, “what about our beloved heirlooms? They taste great, are in theory more wholesome than modern stuff, and have made a major resurgence!” Well put! And I am one among many devotees and champions of forgotten “awesomeness” and have spent many years seed saving and pontificating on how-to save such things. Many heirlooms were discarded due to the market and social pressures of their eras, and it is totally acceptable that we re-discover them.

Truth be told, though, some older varieties taste awful, and were justifiably abandoned for greater or even just less-bad innovations. And the agronomic qualities of many older varieties are poor; the heirlooms that have risen to the top of common consciousness are generally the better performers. Some tasty “old-timers” are very regionally adapted, which I happen to think makes them “super-super-awesome”, but also makes wider appeal in the seed marketplace doubtful. But, like our “super” apple example, those attributes of great taste and specific adaptations can make heirlooms excellent breeding parents.

Within the re-discovery and re-introduction process, the sheer volume of the great old things and their unique traits cannot be absorbed into the average person’s comprehension. 3 or 4 amazing “old school” melons? Wow! 30 or 40? Or 400? Those of us on the preservation side quickly see the limit to the profitable adoption of more than a few easily recognizable old varieties into our commercial realm and social recognition. I say this knowing “Diversity” has become a bit of a food fad, with folks wanting to grow, taste, and eat as many unique things as possible. But this movement has also shown its ability to quickly toss aside one heirloom or crop and go indulge in the next “new” thing. A few glamorous anointed varieties have been dismissed abruptly, leaving the seed trade with excess and useless inventory! Chasing the next new thing is not a well-rounded business plan — nor a wise approach to crop improvement. We can be a fickle bunch, underneath all our local food ideology.

Conversely, our collective consciousness can also be quite stubborn! As gardeners and farmers, cooks and eaters, we can be aggressively prejudicial toward the varieties of vegetables and fruits we grow or enjoy. I have been given a sharp demonic eye when tempting a faithful “Amish Paste” acolyte with a different sauce-y option. Within the commercial seed trade, 100s of new varieties will try for decades to steal a little bit of the stage from a classic, to no avail. The Big Beef tomato, Silver Queen & Kandy Korn sweet corns, Fordhook Swiss chard, Marketmore 76 cucumber….These are survivors whose shares of our collective consciousness have not been touched by literally millions of dollars in newer plant breeding R&D.

So, even if a variety is nutritious, tastes great, and performs well in today’s agriculture, it has to be that darn lucky variety to breach the garden & farm seed trade group think. The lifespan of a very successful variety in the marketplace might reach 20 years. More commonly the introduction sputters, and the variety will last maybe 5 years. In plant breeding, we throw away untold hundreds of lesser paths to discover the best genetic combinations — with even our best often ending up on what Luther Burbank called his yearly “$10,000 bonfires” (early 1900s money, you do the math).

Breeding and introducing new varieties mostly just adds to the massive pile of forgotten plant breeding due to the challenges of social and commercial recognition. For something to be nutritious in a real world sense, it must taste good AND perform in the agricultural system of its culture / time AND that special something must be able to capture our attention in the seed marketplace. To consume a tasty nutritious variety regularly, we must be able to grow it with competence, and its gotta sell.

Valentine grape tomatoes

photo credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Valentine grape tomatoes

Up to this point, you may feel I have been flippantly painting a fairly daunting picture of the “meta” hurdles plant breeding and crop improvement must overcome. Two saving graces keep this cycle of exploration called plant breeding in action. First, contrary to popular belief, all plant breeders are incredibly adventurous, brave and bold (and smart & attractive & generally fun to hang out with at parties). Second, plants are incredibly forgiving and beneficent, and we often succeed in spite of our clumsy meddling rather than because of our skilled genius.

When a plant breeding project begins, some or all of the aforementioned real world pressures are prudently considered. The duality is that a certain amount of difficult work must be indulged in before any outcome can really be assessed. This is especially true when one is breeding for improved nutritional traits.

Putting aside all the variables I have put in bold, yes of course different varieties of a specific crop DO contain differing levels of nutritional benefit. Sometimes this oscillation is within the crop species itself and is relatively easily worked on by breeders. More often we find the “golden ticket” hidden with another closely related domesticated species, or even a wild “cousin” species. It is possible to “cross” two closely related species, meaning that a few viable seedlings result when we transfer pollen between the species. Just as often, success requires thousands of crosses or using traditional breeding techniques such as embyro rescue (promoting the development of a weak embryo by using an artificial nutrient medium to substitute for failed endosperm). Influencing the number of relatable chromosomal numbers can also be key, another traditional breeding technique used for a decades. Those numbers can occasionally be altered via chemicals or hormones so that chromosomes fuse or divide, changing the number in the cell.

Plant breeders have been utilizing interspecific crosses between species for over a century to introduce many valuable traits into useful agriculture. Disease and insect resistances, stress tolerance, great flavor, and more recently increased nutritional quality have been among the benefits brought by this difficult but crucial process. A fun historical fact: Nearly a century ago, the word “hybrid” actually meant a cross between two different species.

Valentine: A Case Study

Luckily, we can explore a very recent and real world example of plant breeding that will illustrate many concepts and challenges. In 2017, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (JSS) of central Maine released All American Selections (AAS) award winning “Valentine”, an Early Blight resistant and high lycopene hybrid red grape tomato. But the story begins with the nearly 20 years of work by Dr. Majid Foolad at Penn State.

Dr. Foolad started his tomato research in 1994 with the intent to address disease pressure commercial growers were facing in Pennsylvania. He carefully evaluated germplasm from the USDA and other plant genetics repositories, looking closely at wild tomato species. Within Solanum pimpinellifolium (commonly known as currant tomato), Foolad identified a strain, or accession, that demonstrated resistance to Early Blight (Alternaria solani) with an added bonus of very high lycopene content. This very high lycopene content also adds a stunning deep crimson color to the fruits. Truly, a gem found its way into the hands of a lapidary.

Breeding lines were developed by breeding crosses between that very interesting but diverse wild accession and domesticated S. lycopersicum, to more fully capture these good traits into a usable form. As is often the case when using a wild species in breeding, excellent traits often “drag” along less desirable traits. High lycopene in tomato can link itself with soft or mealy/mushy texture, and “off” or unusual flavors can also plague wild-blooded gene pools. These negative relationships would be painstakingly overcome.

Foolad’s research reflects the term “pre-breeding”. This seemingly dismissive term is actually a shorthand within the plant breeding community for the extremely time-consuming and epically important process of translating a bunch of mixed up genetics into a useable form. Pre-breeding is where research is done to seek out solutions to problems and where new breeding techniques are often developed. If reflected into woodworking, pre-breeding is where someone has selected a very good tree, expertly felled it, and skillfully sawn the logs into boards. Does that mean there are no knots or warps? No, but it means excellent raw material is available for the next stage of “building” new varieties.

Let’s take a moment to look at lycopene itself. Occurring in our standard tomato naturally, lycopene is a bright red carotenoid found in many red fruits and vegetables in varying levels, but occurs in select non-red produce as well. Unlike many nutrients, cooking actually increases its availability, as do fats/oils in combination (hence one more value of great olive oil!) Like many antioxidants, scientific research has not been able to verify the specific benefits that lycopene offers the human body thru diet. Various studies support its role in overall cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure, but other studies can find no essential role in the body nor any direct benefit.

Research into nutrition is often contradictory and results vague, in part because our reductive model of science is not suited to discovering systemic functions. (Also because our country doesn’t value nutrition highly.) That should come as no surprise to readers of The Natural Farmer. Nor should the concept that eating a rich and balanced diet combined with fresh air, exercise, (and not being a stress-case) is good for us. Adding excellent tomatoes to your life can’t be wrong, as centuries of human use in the Americas and Mediterranean can attest.

Dr. Foolad presented his breeding research to the greater community at a tomato symposium in 2009, and was approached by Rob Johnston, JSS founder and now-retired breeder. Foolad sent the Johnny’s breeding program his best development lines for their evaluation and test crossing. JSS already had some very good grape and cherry tomato breeding lines of their own, and hoped to combine their own selections with Foolad’s vigorous and disease resistant material. At this point, the high lycopene content was not the primary motivator for JSS, but seemed promising.

Thru trialing and test crossing in 2011, Johnston and crew identified which of the Penn State lines held the most promise as hybrid parents. In 2012, Johnston turned over the project to newly hired tomato breeder Emily Haga to explore the full potential. 100 test crosses between the best Penn State line and JSS cherry and grape inbred parents were tasted in 2013. The firm texture of grape parentage was found to be a successful combination to offset the flesh softness linked to high lycopene content. And of course the lycopene-linked bold color and great flavor were sought within the population.

In 2014, the JSS breeding staff assessed the very best of these 100 crosses in larger plant numbers, hoping to view the plant habit and other traits more closely. At the same time, the JSS and Penn State parent lines of these winning test crosses were evaluated for uniformity, and single plant selections were made as needed to further refine stability. When looking so closely at the chosen Penn State parent lines, a new challenge was observed by the JSS crew.

Wild tomato species often have flower structures that encourage bees to perform pollination activities. Seed savers among us may also know this from the heirloom tomatoes that still express this trait. This is the infamous “exerted stigma”, exposed pistillate/female flower parts that encourage outcrossing between tomato plants in more “original” tomato germplasm. The exerted stigma extends beyond the anthers before they shed pollen, allowing an interlude where pollinators could wing by for a visit with pollen from another tomato plant.

In commonplace modern tomatoes, the stigma stands among the anthers as they shed pollen and remains below or level with the anther “cone”. Before bees can intercede the flower does the job itself. This natural “selfing” process of modern tomatoes helps breeders stabilize breeding lines without having to intervene with hand pollination work, saving a ton of detailed labor. It also allows breeders to plant many breeding projects & lines together, as there is little risk of crossing and inadvertently scrambling the population.

But, in the case of the select Penn State lines, bumblebees were eagerly working the flowers! An apparent outcome of their wild parentage, the Penn State lines’ flowers were bee-friendly, with potential out-crossing between plants and mixing up of the genetics of the parent lines. Getting and keeping the Penn State parent lines “fixed” (pure) added unexpected effort, but Emily and the breeding crew tackled the issue handily.

As a single promising hybrid was determined, much broader trial across the US was required in 2015. Getting feedback from lots of growers and regions is crucial to releasing a potentially successful variety. Dr. Foolad was included in these trials as well, testing the lycopene content of the cross and the comparison commercial “checks”. Foolad and independent labs determined the new hybrid contained 3 times the lycopene of the any of the “check” varieties. The decision was made at this time to promote the lycopene content as part of the new variety description.

Finally, in 2017, a winning hybrid between a JSS grape parent and the Penn State material was fully ready for release! “Valentine” was not only vetted by the AAS judges; Johnny’s also brought chefs and the public into the fray. Chefs Jason French, Frank Giglio and Tim Wastell were given free rein to put “Valentine” thru its paces in a number of different preparations. The public was treated to these creations by Lane Selman’s Culinary Breeding Network event in Portland, Oregon and at an autumn event in Unity, Maine during the Common Ground Country Fair weekend.

“Valentine” has met all the criteria required of successful crop improvement toward nutrition. Its distinct flavor is excellent; deep and rich with great texture. The disease resistance and vigor makes it easier to grow that many comparable varieties. Yield has been very high and of high quality in all comparable trials. Its stunning crimson color helps it gain individual market recognition. And, due to diligent trialing and vetting, “Valentine” is more than holding it own in seed sales.

I want to extend many thanks to Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and especially tomato breeder Emily Haga, for “pulling back the curtain” on their world class breeding program and their collaboration with Dr. Majid Foolad. The combined efforts of JSS and Dr. Foolad measure 23 years in reaching this outcome. And the work continues: with excellent lines developed, Dr. Foolad will likely have a few more excellent lycopene hybrids available very soon. To further fund his ongoing tomato work, Penn State has patented the lycopene trait he is working with, and royalties from “Valentine” add to that support.

The reader may find it odd that I, an employee of a fully different seed company than Johnny’s, would take the time to examine and present their success. In the seed “realm” and plant breeding circles, we do each other and our calling disservice if we do not laud hard earned excellence. While we are competitors in one sense, we are also treasured colleagues and contemporaries. Dear reader, you’ve surely suffered thru my article, but please join me in giving “Valentine” three cheers: “Brave work, Well done, In gratitude!!!”

Heron Breen continues a 20 year career at Fedco Seeds of Clinton, Maine. He also works with the seed non-profit Freed Seed Federation, promoting farmer breeding and seed saving in the Northeast. As well, Heron operates a small seed saving and plant breeding farm in central Maine.