A Better Tomato, a Better Tomorrow
A coalition of breeders, farmers, and chefs are saving us from a bland future by seeding a new wave of vegetables bred for flavor
By Margarett Waterbury
Photos by Shawn Linehan
One rainy evening in late September 2014, an industrial warehouse on a dead-end street in Northwest Portland was transformed into a kaleidoscopic cross between a farmers’ market, a networking group, a small-plates restaurant, and the agricultural section of a particularly well-run state fair. It was the Culinary Breeding Network’s first-ever Variety Showcase, an event that brought together plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, produce buyers, culinary educators, and some of Portland’s best chefs to taste and evaluate the most exciting new open-pollinated vegetable crops being grown here in the Pacific Northwest.
A rainbow of violet-shouldered tomatoes of every size and shape sat side by side with baskets of firm, glossy chiles — some perfectly smooth, some with deep ridges running from blossom end to stem. An array of winter squash — from tiny vermillion acorn types to hulking, dusky Marina di Chioggia — butted up against a lineup of storage onions displayed in cross section to showcase the magenta striations between layers of snow-white flesh. Chefs from the kind of Portland restaurants that regularly get coverage in the New York Times prepared contemporary dishes showcasing each vegetable, while produce buyers and breeders, sipping whiskey sours, swapped tips on which squash stores the best.
It’s tempting to dismiss a bunch of chefs swooning over exotic carrots as a farm-to-table cliché, but the sense of excitement in the crowd came from more than the habanada samples (all of the habanero flavor, none of the scorching heat). This was not just a rare gathering of immensely dedicated and skilled food professionals, it was an important refocusing on the most fundamental aspect of farming and cuisine: the seed.
Few farms save their own seeds. Most rely on a few major seed companies that control the majority of seed production in North America. Historically, the development of new seed varieties was a core public service offered by land-grant universities with strong ties to local communities. Land-grant universities were established through the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which gave states land to establish a nationwide network of universities “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
These almost exclusively public universities (Cornell and MIT are the only private land-grant universities) have played a pivotal role in the development of food resources in the United States. Land-grant institutions are responsible for addressing critical technical agricultural concerns like disease and pest resistance, crop development, drought tolerance, and soil and mineral research. They operate experiment stations and extension programs that work with communities to develop new plant varieties and solve issues related to food production. They even run nutrition education and food business development programs.
These services are vital, but the focus is beginning to shift. Land-grant universities are facing declining federal funding, and retiring seed breeders aren’t being replaced. Today, the major decision makers about what we grow to eat are no longer taxpayer-funded researchers or regional farmers; they’re national agribusiness companies. These firms value just four major attributes when they develop or purchase new genetic lines: yield, storage, shipability, and uniformity.
This transfer of control has taken place almost completely under the radar, but you can taste it every time you bite into a smooth, firm, cherry-red, totally flavorless tomato in April.
Achievement in these categories has resulted in our current landscape of food that is attractive, firm, uniform, predictable, and available year round. It has made national-scale commodity cropping faster, easier, and more profitable. But it may also leave us more vulnerable to disease, pests, and climate change through an emphasis on monocropping and a relatively limited pool of genetic material, and it has sacrificed both nutrition and flavor. This transfer of control has taken place almost completely under the radar, but you can taste it every time you bite into a smooth, firm, cherry-red, totally flavorless tomato in April.
Fortunately, all is not lost. The Variety Showcase made it clear that plant breeding for other attributes is still alive and well in the United States, perhaps nowhere as vibrantly as here in the Northwest. Oregon State University is Oregon’s only land-grant university. Jim Myers is the chair of vegetable breeding and genetics at OSU’s Department of Horticulture, where he is quietly pursuing some of the most exciting vegetable breeding projects on the West Coast. Myers has an avuncular manner and favors plaid shirts in neutral tones, perhaps because they make his outrageously colorful Indigo line of tomatoes stand out more dramatically.
The open-pollinated Indigo Rose tomato has made some big waves since its commercial introduction in 2012, even landing on the pages of Bon Appétit magazine. The product of a cross between cultivated tomatoes and wild lines from the Galapagos and Central America, the Indigo line is unmistakable thanks to its vivid purple color. But when you ask Myers about it, he’s quick to give credit to his collaborators. “Starting was not my idea at all. It was Carl Jones, a graduate student, who took us down this path. It’s a matter of recruiting a smart graduate student and turning him loose.”
The Indigo project was started with the intention of making tomatoes — by some estimates the second-most frequently consumed vegetable in the nation — more nutritious. Myers recounts how Jones “noticed that there were some tomatoes in the genetic stock collection maintained at UC Davis with a purple color at about the same time people recognized anthocyanins as a nutrition pigment. Our first paper got a fair amount of press, but the results were disappointing because expression wasn’t very high in initial attempts. But one combination of strains did produce an intensification of the pigment, which eventually became Indigo Rose.”
The Indigo project was started with the intention of making tomatoes — by some estimates the second-most frequently consumed vegetable in the nation — more nutritious.
You can now buy Indigo Rose tomatoes at the farmers’ market, or pick up a seedling from the nursery to grow at home. But that doesn’t mean the research is over. Because Indigo Rose is an open-pollinated tomato, its genetic material is available for anybody to grow, breed, and experiment with. Myers brought eight different cultivars in progress to the Variety Showcase, including some bright-green salad slicers with bracing flavor and acidity as well as a whole new breeding line of Roma types. Next to him, Alice Doyle of Log House Plants in Cottage Grove showcased her breeding efforts using the Indigo line, including a heap of tiny, peach-and-purple cherry tomatoes that looked just like cat’s-eye marbles. Chefs flocked to the table, trading tips on deseeding and stuffing.
“It’s not just about finding the next novelty or the next big thing,” said Andrew Still, owner of Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, Oregon. “We’re here to bring biodiversity back to agriculture and our plates as soon as possible.” Open-pollinated plants and seed breeding have the potential to shape the future of our food system in a profound way by helping growers adapt gracefully to changes in our economy and climate while improving the flavor and nutrition of the foods we all eat.
The New Face of Plant Breeding
Here in the Northwest, Myers is continuing his experiments with the Indigo line, including recent crosses with French indeterminate heirlooms like Ananas Noir. But despite its successes, Indigo isn’t a direct product of the land-grant system. Instead, Myers funded it from his own endowment budget. “The land-grant program is still there in name and as an institute, but funding has dwindled. When I came to OSU fifteen years ago, every breeding project got $15,000. Now I don’t see any funding of this sort.”
Support for the land-grant program comes from a complex web of federal funding sources. Priorities are set at broad levels, and often with lots of input from big players in the agribusiness sector. To encourage public-sector breeders like Myers to focus on priorities like taste and nutrition, we need alternative venues like the Culinary Breeding Network to create, test, and promote new vegetables at the consumer level and draw attention to the reality that seed breeding is the true blueprint for our entire food system.
By extending the decentralized ethos of open-pollinated breeding to the entire agricultural economy, the Culinary Breeding Network hopes to cultivate a more delicious, more resilient, and more regionally adapted food system.
Lane Selman, director of the Culinary Breeding Network, is a faculty research assistant at OSU who works closely with Myers. Much of her work takes place in the field with seed trials, in which farmers across several different test areas grow new crop varieties to select the most promising new lines for organic growers. Instead of the metrics used by big agribusiness, Selman evaluates plants based on vigor, flavor, texture, culinary attributes, and nutrition. Growers and researchers taste crops right in the field, taking a bite out of a carrot or pulling a few tomatoes from the vine. Seed trials like these are able to create some amazing new varieties, but Selman sensed that there was a missing piece.
The Culinary Breeding Network arose from the desire to involve all the stakeholders in a local food supply chain in the breeding process. So far, it’s a loose, inclusive, highly regional group of breeders, farmers, chefs, produce buyers, grocers, and other food economy players — around 100 active participants in all but with a reach that extends far beyond its immediate network. The group is writing a grant proposal to extend the network to Wisconsin and New York (in partnership with land-grant universities Cornell and University of Wisconsin). By extending the decentralized ethos of open-pollinated breeding to the entire agricultural economy, from breeders and farmers to chefs and buyers, the Culinary Breeding Network hopes to cultivate a more delicious, more resilient, and more regionally adapted food system while supporting plant breeders like Myers not ease of distribution.
Today, open-pollinated plant breeding takes place in a fractured system populated by a lot of passionate, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and immensely overworked people who don’t always talk to one another, or to the people who can help get their work to market, like farmers, distributors, and chefs. Breeders make choices in the field that dictate what will be available to sell to consumers. Farmers grow our food, but they’re usually too busy to market nontraditional crops or too financially strapped to take a risk on growing something without a proven market. Chefs don’t just set trends; they educate consumers about unfamiliar foods and force distributors to carry new products. Coordination between these different stakeholders is what transforms something like a Padron pepper from a novelty to a profit center for farms.
What stood out most from the Variety Showcase was the almost-too-good-to-be-true reality that we don’t have to compromise when it comes to breeding vegetables that work for us. Beautiful, sweet, single-serving Honeynut squash from Cornell plant breeder Michael Mazourek aren’t only delicious, they’re highly resistant to vine borers and cucumber beetles. Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed’s Italian pepper varieties are both tasty and unusually vigorous, helping small fresh-market growers consistently produce crops that sell well enough to keep them afloat. And Jim Myers’s technicolor Indigo-line tomatoes don’t just stand out on a salad plate, they also contain dramatically higher concentrations of antioxidant anthocyanins, making them more nutritious than regular tomatoes.
Land-grant university work like this directly serves the public interest. Without it, our seed supply will be developed to meet those four enterprise goals of yield, storage, shipability, and uniformity. But the Culinary Breeding Network opens a tantalizing window to another way, an inclusive system that connects the entire eating community through the shared goals of collaboration and building a more vibrant — and delectable — culinary landscape.
Margarett Waterbury is a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest who now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. @margarettwaterbury