There’s a big molecule, a protein, inside the leaves of most plants. It’s called Rubisco, which is short for an actual chemical name that’s very long and hard to remember.
Amanda Cavanagh, a biologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, calls herself a big fan of Rubisco. “It’s probably the most abundant protein in the world,” she says. It’s also super-important.
Scientist Amanda Cavanagh snap freezes plant samples with liquid nitrogen to study how the metabolism differs between unmodified plants and plants engineered with alternate pathways for photorespiration.Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project
Rubisco has one job. It picks up carbon dioxide from the air, and it uses the carbon to make sugar molecules. It gets the energy to do this from the sun. This is photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to make food, a foundation of life on Earth. Yay for Rubisco!
“But it has what we like to call one fatal flaw,” Cavanagh continues. Unfortunately, Rubisco isn’t picky enough about what it grabs from the air. It also picks up oxygen. “When it does that, it makes a toxic compound, so the plant has to detoxify it.”
Plants have a whole complicated chemical assembly line to carry out this detoxification, and the process uses up a lot of energy. This means the plant has less energy for making leaves, or food for us. (There is a family of plants, including corn and sugar cane, that developed another type of workaround for Rubisco, and those plants are much more productive.)
Cavanagh and her colleagues in a research program called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which is based at the University of Illinois, have spent the last five years trying to fix Rubisco’s problem. “We’re sort of hacking photosynthesis,” she says.
They experimented with tobacco plants, just because tobacco is easy to work with. They inserted some new genes into these plants, which shut down the existing detoxification assembly line and set up a new one that’s way more efficient. And they created super tobacco plants. “They grew faster, and they grew up to 40 percent bigger” than normal tobacco plants, Cavanagh says. These measurements were done both in greenhouses and open-air field plots.
The scientists now are trying to do the same thing with plants that people actually rely on for food, like tomatoes and soybeans. They also working with cowpeas, or black-eyed peas, “because it’s a staple food crop for a lot of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, which is where our funders are interested in making the biggest impact,” Cavanagh says.
The funders of this project include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Disclosure: The Gates Foundation also funds NPR.) The USDA has applied for a patent on plants that are engineered in this way.
“This is a very important finding,” she says. “It’s really the first major breakthrough showing that one can indeed engineer photosynthesis and achieve a major increase in crop productivity.”
It will be many years, though, before any farmers plant crops with this new version of photosynthesis. Researchers will have to find out whether it means that a food crop like soybeans actually produces more beans — or just more stalks and leaves.
Then they’ll need to convince government regulators and consumers that the crops are safe to grow and eat.
Renegade bakers and geneticists develop whole-wheat loaves you’ll want to eat
BY VERONIQUE GREENWOOD BOSTON GLOBE
riving up through the rolling farmland north of Seattle this July, I was thinking about my next meal. I arrived in the small industrial park, home to the Washington State University Bread Lab, for a gathering of wheat geneticists and other grain professionals. I’d missed the explanation of the items on the buffet tables, made by attendees. I loaded my plate with about a pound of cookies from the dessert end and steadily consumed the lot. They were soft and nutty, with a rich ruddy color and a delicate crumb. I wiped buttery crumbs from my fingers. I went back for more.
“What are these?” I asked the volunteer by the coffee pots, brandishing a blondie bar. “I’m not sure,” she said. They must be made from some delicious heirloom grain, or something, I thought, surreptitiously loading my pockets.
They’re whole wheat, the lab’s head, Stephen Scott Jones, later told me. One hundred percent. That was a surprise; whole wheat baked goods are often eaten more out of obligation than pleasure. They are not known for their can’t-stop-eating flavor. And yet, the Bread Lab is making its name by doing something that is almost unique in the industry: Breeding wheat — especially wheat for whole wheat flour — for taste. They and their collaborators across the country have quietly launched an effort that they hope will create something new — a whole wheat loaf that people would actually like to eat.
Wheat breeders who develop new strains for the global market aim for traits like the right height for mechanized harvesting, the right texture for mechanized baking, and a high yield. As odd as it sounds, flavor more or less faded from breeders’ awareness somewhere along the line. Jones says that for most of his decades-long career as a breeder, it was not discussed. At the same time, knowledge of the importance of whole grains has been on the rise: Eating whole wheat and other unrefined grains correlates with better heart health, healthier weight, and even longer life, according to epidemiological studies.
So maybe the time is right. At the Bread Lab’s headquarters this summer, a plucky group of about 40 bakers, millers, breeders, and others met to test-bake a loaf they’ve been discussing and fine-tuning for the last two years. They call it the Approachable Loaf.
The loaf they’re all dreaming of has a simple recipe. Start, first of all, with the right wheat for the job. The lab grows thousands of newly generated strains of wheat every year to test them. Steve Lyon, the Bread Lab’s head technician, took me out to one of the experimental fields this summer, where the stalks stood in a patchwork of yellows and tans, all different heights and shapes. The researchers make the same basic test loaf from the freshly milled flour — whole wheat goes rancid quickly, so using fresh-milled is important — and then they taste it. They have identified one new wheat, which they’ve dubbed Skagit 1109, that makes a reliably tasty whole wheat bread. For the moment, a bakery making the Approachable Loaf will likely have to use commodity wheat, but ideally, they’ll develop better options.
The story of bread as we’ve known it is the story of our food system as a whole: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the advance of technology on farms, in mills, and in factories allowed the mass production of foods from an ever-longer list of ingredients, both natural and artificial. The Approachable Loaf symbolizes something else — the possibility that, through the application of science, even a food as humble and maligned as whole wheat bread can be both simpler and tastier.
Nutritionally, whole wheat flour is better for you than white. The germ and the bran, the portions of the wheat kernel with the most fiber and other nutrients, stay in whole wheat flour when it’s milled, giving it its distinctive dark color. But they usually curb your desire to put it in your mouth. Compared to the seductive quality of a good white sourdough — tangy and just a little stretchy — or even the gentle squish of a soft white grocery store loaf, melting seamlessly into a slab of grilled cheese, the ashy, faintly bitter whole wheat loaf is no competition.
The battle between light and dark in the matter of bread is longer and weirder than most people realize. While many might assume the rise of whole wheat bread as a health food started with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, anthropologist Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces it back far earlier. Over thousands of years, the color of bread has carried various meanings, he writes in his book “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Hearty dark loaves were better for building a society than wimpy white ones, Plato argued in “The Republic”; Socrates, on the other hand, felt whole-meal bread was essentially animal food.
By the 19th century in the United States, activists claimed whole wheat would bring people closer to God, and thus to health. One influential obsessive was Sylvester Graham, the New England minister who gave his name to the graham cracker. A sickly child, he eventually turned to vegetarianism as an adult. Today, he might have started a blog about clean eating. Eating foods in their most natural form, like whole wheat, was what God intended man to do, Graham argued in lectures that caused riots in Boston and New York, and anything that was wrong with you could be taken care of with whole wheat bread and water.
Grahamism had adherents of all stripes: Educational reformer Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” founded a farm commune northwest of Boston to live in the manner prescribed by the movement. It lasted only seven months. Louisa May, who was 10 at the time, later lampooned the endeavor in her satire “Transcendental Wild Oats.” She noted that the vast majority of the labor fell to women and children, while the men sat around discussing the philosophy of food. “About the time the grain was ready to house,” she wrote dryly, “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.”
Today, the benefits of eating more whole grains are among the rare things that virtually all nutrition experts agree on. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends that half of all grains should be whole. But 2015 numbers show that almost nobody eats that way.
Past efforts to make virtue a little tastier have achieved the opposite. The food historian Maria Trumpler visited the Bread Lab recently and demonstrated whole wheat bread recipes from the 1970s and ’80s — an era when adding molasses, powdered milk, and other substances to try to hide the whole wheat was in vogue.
“They were just absolutely horrible,” says Jones, nearly awed by the badness. “If you have a bread book from the ’70s, you should burn it! I’m not into book burning, but, God — you should just get rid of it.” There must, he and colleagues think, be a better way.
Wheat breeder David Van Sanford, a professor at University of Kentucky, recalls when he first learned of Jones, who had become fed up with the situation and helped found the Bread Lab in 2011. I’ve gone to scads of meetings, Jones had told a reporter, and never heard the term “flavor” used once. “That really resonated with me,” Van Sanford says. Wheat flour can, in fact, have a taste: For a good bread wheat, “the words we use are nutty, chocolate tones, and a bit of spice tone,” Jones says. A wheat used for cookies and pie dough has a different, more mellow profile.
When most wheat breeders assess the outcomes of their efforts and decide what to do next, however, they evaluate what the wheat is like without the bran and germ. The bran and the germ are what give whole wheat much of its taste. As a result, a wheat that’s bred for an inoffensive-tasting white flour might make a whole wheat flour that’s depressingly like sawdust. When no one is breeding for a whole wheat that tastes good, Jones argues, it is not all that surprising that it winds up bad. Jones’s savvy as a scientist and his conviction are persuasive; his lab has relationships with well-known companies such as King Arthur Flour, Clif Bar, and Chipotle.
If a whole wheat loaf has a good flavor, is affordable, and meets the needs of those who don’t frequent artisanal bakeries — which have a dedicated but small clientele — it wouldn’t be nearly so hard for people to eat more of it, think the people behind the Approachable Loaf, many of whom have attended annual gatherings at the Bread Lab over the last few years.
One of them, Louie Prager, who runs the Prager Brothers bakery in Carlsbad, Calif., has noticed that some of his own employees prefer a soft brown supermarket loaf. It has no holes for mustard to leak through, it’s good for sandwiches for packed lunches, it doesn’t go bad very quickly, it’s familiar, and it’s inexpensive, something you can’t say about some artisanal loaves. But it often has many stabilizers, colorants, and dough conditioners that artisan bakers avoid, as well as a surprising amount of sugar.
Other than better wheat, the only other ingredients in the Approachable Loaf are sourdough starter, salt, small amounts of oil and sugar, and water. Using starter to leaven the bread gives it a longer shelf life than a standard yeasted bread; the sugar and oil give the bread a flavor and texture that’s closer to the supermarket loaf.
Experience and skill on the part of the baker helps in getting a good product, of course: Those bizarrely delicious cookies I tasted at the Bread Lab’s headquarters did involve a good choice of wheat, but the flour was also probably freshly milled and the bakers knew what they were doing, notes Van Sanford. The loose network of people testing and fine-tuning the Approachable Loaf includes professional bakers in Washington, California, and Vermont, working to bring their technical knowledge of artisanal bread making to bear on something closer to the supermarket loaf. Jones estimates that at least eight bakeries are currently making some version of it.
Can the Approachable Loaf go big? Bringing together breeding, farming, processing, and food production to make something that both satisfies the consumer and is nutritious is not a simple process, says Tim Griffin, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who collaborates with Bread Lab researchers. But for the past year and a half or so, he and colleagues have been discussing it in the context of the Approachable Loaf. “We’re seeing bread as our first test case for that,” he says. “What would the system have to look like if we successfully used whole grains?” They are investigating what businesses would need to exist, how the supply chains for bread would need to change, and other logistical barriers to a loaf that’s both nutritious and legitimately attractive.
If the bakers can come up with a tasty loaf, then the millers will need to come up with a procedure to mill large quantities of whole wheat flour while keeping it from going bad, and farmers will need to learn to grow and profit from breeds of wheat that make whole wheat worth eating. These are the kinds of challenges he’s considering.
In Montana, wheat breeder and Flathead Valley Community College professor Heather Estrada has her eyes on the near term: using wheat she and her students have grown to bake the Approachable Loaf together. “We were able to clean all our grain and it’s ready for milling,” she said gleefully when I spoke to her October. The loaf is a way for her students to see all the pieces of the food system they’ve been studying all semester, from field to lab to kitchen, come together in a way that’s more than glancing. “There’s a lot of cultural depth,” Estrada says, “to the story of bread.”
Food is going high-tech — policy needs to catch up with it
BY THE BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL BOARD
or generations newspaper editorials have been the “eat your spinach” part of the operation. But what if that spinach can now be organic baby spinach, or hydroponically grown? What if we can eat it year round — and from just around the corner?
With a warming planet, the need for high-tech food and high-tech food policies is undeniable. Both are going to play an increasingly vital role in the planet’s future — and the way we eat. Here are a few ways to use science to steer food into a more sustainable path.
Learn to love GMOs, and resist efforts to demonize or prohibit them. Genetically modified food sets off alarm bells for purists, but crops designed to last longer or resist disease are increasingly necessary.
The good news is that new federal labeling regulations, which could become final by Dec. 1, will preclude the kind of state-by-state labeling regulations that Vermont had already indulged in and that Massachusetts has been perpetually on the cusp of enacting.
The even better news is that the science of food — of producing fruits with a longer shelf life, wheat that requires less water or fertilizer — is advancing so fast that even the foodie fearmongers can’t keep up.
First on the federal role: While moving at a glacial pace, the US Department of Agriculture has at long last brought forth a final set of regulations designed to implement a law passed by Congress in 2016 to deal with standards for disclosing bioengineered ingredients. Not surprisingly the new regs generated a huge amount of controversy — more than 14,000 comments received by the agency during the public comment period.
Assuming the regs are indeed finalized Dec. 1, they won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2020. What consumers are likely to notice is that GMO labeling will become “BE food,” or “bioengineered food.” And since at least two-thirds of all foods sold in the US contain some ingredients in that category — consumers are indeed likely to see it everywhere.
What it will accomplish is to prevent every state and locality from drafting its own labeling laws and, in the process, making the free movement of good products from state to state difficult if not impossible. And it will let innovation continue unhindered.
The future of seafood in the United States is aquaculture. Even the king of seafood, Roger Berkowitz, acknowledges that. “The technology has gotten so good with submersible pens,” said Berkowitz, chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods empire. “It’s a game changer.”
Berkowitz is particularly excited about the prospect of fish farms in federal open waters. Aquaculture in Massachusetts is largely confined to shallow waters; think oyster beds on Cape Cod. Of course, this country for years has talked about offshore fish farming, but the time has come, with wild fish stocks dwindling. In 2017, the US imported a record amount of seafood, more than 6 billion pounds, and exported only about 3.6 billion pounds.
While Massachusetts and some municipalities have regulated aquaculture, what’s needed now is a federal regulatory framework to support aquaculture in the ocean. It hasn’t been easy navigating the concerns of environmentalists, fishermen worried about their own livelihoods, and ships attached to particular routes. The ocean may be big, but surprisingly not big enough to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Congress can play a big role: Get a bill that everyone likes. Here’s another thought: How about supporting aquaculture as part of the farm bill, something US Representative Seth Moulton would like to see. With Democrats taking back the majority in the House, maybe this could get done next year.
Clear federal policies could enable the prospect of fish farming using the infrastructure of offshore wind turbines. Without such policies, the future of fish farming will remain murky, because these operations are expensive and investors don’t like uncertainty.
“No one would spend a dime on that,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been closely following the development of aquaculture in the ocean. “It makes Cape Wind look like a sure bet.”
Assume change. Farm and food policies tend to deal with what we eat and grow now, but climate change should end that way of thinking. The government and industry need to anticipate disruption, and be ready to adapt, rather than pour money into trying to preserve vanishing industries that can’t be sustained any longer.
Rising temperature of oceans, for example, have forced the cod and lobsters to flee north to colder waters. We lament the loss of cod in Massachusetts, but Southern fish species are flocking to us now. In other words, we need to get used to “Cape Mahi-Mahi.”
Warmer temperatures in New England could extend the growing season for blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and corn. That could be a silver lining for consumers and farmers’ markets.
Food policy is often inherently conservative: organic food fans and proponents of farm subsidies want different versions of the same thing, which is to cling to the way food’s always been. But food is going to change whether we like it or not — and our food policies should try to direct those changes, not stop them.