Sweet Potato Politics

Food Politics | August 30, 2017 | By

sweet-potato-500A new problem has surfaced in agribusiness. ConAgra has decided that sweet potatoes are the new potato. And it isn’t good enough. Orange is the new white, I suppose.

There was a time in life when I grew sexy, plump non-GMO tomatoes in the back of my Cambridge, Massachusetts condo. In my urban haven, an oasis of herbs and tomatoes existed to make my solitary Sundays bright with rituals of biting straight into a tomato like an apple. For contrast and salt, I enjoyed shaved parmigiano reggiano drizzled with olive oil to savor between the luscious, juicy bites. These tomatoes were always better than anything I ever bought.

My long office hours as a corporate biotech attorney felt balanced by that small connection with nature in my morning walk around to check on my tomato plants, pressed into the soil and covered with mulch or newspapers to prevent black bottom fungus. Each day, I watered them like a child tipping the watering can further and hoping for immediate growth. I breathed a little deeper and reflected a little longer about the beauty of watching this plant life transform from day to day—deep greens first matched plant stems until the unripe tomatoes turned into a mélange of greens and orange until finally giving way to blaring reds that announced the arrival of August’s ripeness.

I had known for a long time that different companies were using genetic engineering to manipulate plant genes for increased harvests. In culinary school, we read about the science “breakthrough” of splicing a tuna gene into the DNA of tomato plants to protect their fruits from frost. My friend, a leading biotech partner in Boston, and I spoke about food occasionally in the corporate cafeteria. With all that we had learned through our work with biotech companies, neither of us wanted any part of tomatoes with tuna genes.

Philosophically, I’m okay with using technology to help us determine which types of plants of the same species can be cross-bred effectively to produce a stronger plant. If it would happen in nature and technology only helps us select the right plants faster, it seems like technology-based Darwinism. It’s the unnatural being sold as the natural that bothers me. The shaping of life to fit what seems to be an agribusiness need.

Scientists working for tomato growers must have said “we have a problem with frost, let’s solve it genetically with a tuna gene that helps the fish withstand colder temperatures.” No one seems to have thought through how this unnatural combination might impact the offspring plants, people, or the environment. I don’t know if people are tracking this or if they would even know what to look for, if searching for unintended consequences.

In a Wall Street Journal article published May 24, 2010, ConAgra identified a new market opportunity and anticipated creating jobs by creating facilities to grow sweet potatoes in recovering Louisianna. The plan sounded fine up to this point.

According to ConAgra, sweet potato has not yet met the needs of a mass production fast food society. The company aimed to focus its intention to make it a uniform product claiming that the retail restaurant chains would use sweet potatoes if they could get enough of them and if they could be consistent in their shape and flavor. Restaurants don’t use the ends of the sweet potato because of their pointy ends. A small restaurant might take them and make a sweet potato puree for maximum utilization of the food, but ConAgra’s senior director of manufacturing says that their “trying to sell this sweet potato in a way that consumers recognize, and that’s in long, thin strips.” Now, our fast food options will dictate how nature will grow our vegetables. To me, this feels like a genetic manipulation for the sake of cosmetic, or superficial  fancies.

When did we lose the creativity to make something out of a little bit of this and a little bit of that? Since when did America’s consumers don the pointy dunce cap of only wanting foods with uniform shapes?

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