Farmers and scientists have been trying to “Feed the World” for a long time now. Next year is no different as Greentec holds their Organic Farmers Fair in Amsterdam. The event is claimed to be the biggest and most innovative overview on horticulture technologies put together under one roof with over 450 exhibitors from more than 40 countries.
GreenTech claim to provide concrete answers to essential questions when it comes to innovation and technology for the production of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They are teaming up with The Organic Farmers Fair (TOFF) creating a global meeting place focused primarily on organic agricultural production technology.
It isn’t the first time technology has been used in horticultural innovation, just after the Second World War it was pretty common to buy and grow veggies that had been subjected to “Natural” radioactive manipulation. Before scientists learned how to modify genes, they induced mutations with radiation. It was a sincere effort to feed the world, and amaze home gardeners, by modifying plants to have desirable if rather unpredictable traits.
Atoms for Peace
We often think of gardening as a wholesome and natural process that result in only the freshest type of fruits and vegetables. As it turns out, much of our modern fruit and plant derivative flavours actually originated from genetic mutations caused by being exposed to gamma radiation. Flavours like peppermint and pink grapefruit are the most prominent plants changed from this deliberate irradiation.
Beginning in the 1950s, “Atomic gardens” or “Gamma Gardens” were a part of the Atoms for Peace, a program to develop peaceful uses of fission energy after World War II and help nuclear energy’s ailing reputation.
The main hope in subjecting plants to radiation was that it might create varieties that were disease resistant or cold-resistant to increase yields.
Using a Hammer
Nanotechnologist Paige Johnson summarizes the methodology behind radiation gardening best when she says, "If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation using a hammer."
Atomic Garden Pic C Google Maps
Experiments to test these hypotheses were carried out in large scale "gamma gardens" on the grounds of laboratories in the US, Europe, and the former USSR.
The circular form of the gamma gardens, was based on the need to arrange the plants in concentric circles around the radiation source (cobalt-60) encased in a huge tower. When workers needed to enter the field the radioactive core was lowered below ground into a lead lined chamber. There were a series of fences and alarms to keep people from entering the field when the source was above ground.
The amount of radiation received by the plants naturally varied according to how close they were to the pole. So usually a single variety would be arranged as a 'wedge' leading away from the centre, so that the effects of a range of radiation levels could be evaluated. Most of the plants close to the pole just died. A little further away, they would be so genetically altered that they were riddled with tumours and other growth abnormalities. It was generally the rows where the plants 'looked' normal, but still had genetic alterations, that were of the most interest, that were 'just right' as far as mutation breeding was concerned.
Before gamma gardens, farmers and scientists have always tried to modify plants using selective breeding or chemically induced mutations to enhance crops and flowers. Radiation was, as John James wrote in 1961 at The American Rose, “something to be excited about.” Now, your average hobbyists could see the process of genetic variance at home. The results could be unpredictable; “don’t expect miracles every time,” he warned—but in the meantime, enjoy the experience. By 1962, garden shows began featuring “atomic energized” tomatoes, and the new radiation-bred seeds and vegetables soon made their way to the supermarket.
Seed packets depicted robust flowers and vegetables, calling them "atomic-energized" and offering an interesting definition of what radiation does — "gamma rays tend to shake up the normal balanced system of the embryo inside the plant."
Atomic Garden Society
In the U.K., gardening enthusiast Muriel Howorth was inspired by the activism and science of gamma gardening after experimenting with and growing an unusually large “x-rayed peanut” In 1959, Howorth formed The Atomic Gardening Society, “a cultural body for the guidance of atomic plant-mutation experimentation,”
Because of Howorth, over 300 gardeners soon set up experiments in the U.K. to achieve new and intriguing plants, sometimes under healthy competition for Howarth’s “Mutant Peanut Award,” based on the almond-sized peanuts she’d previously grown. Howorth staged conventions for atomic gardeners to meet, and even gained Albert Einstein as a patron for her new organization.
While it may seem that radiation plant breeding was a harmful, it is known to have created thousands of GMO plants like rice, pears, cotton, bananas, peanuts, wheat and barley among many others (which some claim is where a lot of our food allergies come from) over 2000 cereal and non-cereal crops have been officially registered with the UN and Atomic Energy Agency as being directly induced by gamma radiation.
Out of Favour
Eventually, as scientists and the public grew to understand the dangers posed by radiation exposure, gamma gardens fell out of favour. The notion of irradiated plants feeding a hungry world soon wilted, too.
Decades later, scientists would figure out how to make much more precise mutations, inserting new genes and switching them on to make plants do things they couldn't do before. But this method has its own detractors, some of whom would argue genetic modification is just as bad for health and the environment as radioactivity research.
The Institute of Radiation Breeding in Japan owns the only surviving gamma garden in the world. The main goal of the last surviving radiation garden is to produce fungi resistant plants, fruits with more appealing colours, and ultimately produce as many useable new crop varieties as possible – randomly of course.