We think of eating fruit and vegetables as wholesome, a conscious choice to better treat our bodies for great skin and longevity. But with the rise of genetically modified (GMO) foods, just how sure are we of the sources of the roughage we imbibe in our everyday diets? You may be amazed to hear that some of the ‘natural’ foodstuffs you eat today may have also originated from mutant plants — large atomic farms that expose growing seeds and pollen to radiation to mutate their DNA.
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A radioactive garden
Gamma gardens, as these atomic gardens are often called, originated after World War II as a means to find ‘peaceful’ uses for atomic energy after the unspeakable horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One idea was to bombard plants with nuclear radiation and produce lots of mutations, some of which, researchers hoped, would be useful. For instance, the hope was that such mutations could produce plants that developed heavier fruit or were disease-resistant.
The world’s leading nuclear scientists initially conducted the experiments in giant atomic gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US and Europe.
In some instances, this extensive experimentation with genetic mutations led to traits in crops such as larger seeds, cold and disease resistance, new colors, or sweeter fruits never seen in nature or lost during evolution. However, the results from these expansive atomic facilities remain cloaked in secrecy, with the majority of statistics passed down via oral histories. Results went unpublished for the most part and the location of these gardens was shrouded in secrecy.
Still, reading the available literature, one can glean that the practice of plant irradiation resulted in over 2000 new varieties of plants – now rumored to be used in agricultural production by various publications. One solid example is the Rio Star Grapefruit, developed at the Texas A&M Citrus Center in the 1970s, now accounting for over 75% of all grapefruit produced in Texas. But there are many contrasting articles, and some state that only a handful of foodstuffs on the market originated from mutant parents.
We don’t know how many mutant products are in the food chain
What can firmly be stated is that in 1964, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) merged their radiation plant breeding projects to become the chief global sponsor of mutagenesis.
Ranjith Pathirana, a research fellow who has been an expert in radiation farming for the past 40 years, said in an interview with NEO.LIFE, “The FAO/IAEA division has been funding developing countries to develop these programs.”
And according to the same article, at least 3,365 mutant varieties have been recorded by the FAO/IAEA in their Mutant Variety Database, each listing a desirable modification to one of 220 plant species from seventy countries. Varying reports from the organizations also say these programs are still active despite claims all but one gamma garden located in Japan that produces fungi-resistant plants and fruits in more appealing colors has closed down.
But a 2007 article featuring the IAEA in the New York Times disputes this claim. Dr. Pierre Lagoda, head of plant breeding and genetics at the IAEA, categorically states that atomic breeding was undergoing rapid growth. And that new methods were now in place to speed up the identification of mutants. Lagoda said at the time:
“Radiation breeding is widely used in the developing world, thanks largely to the atomic agency’s efforts. Beneficiaries have included Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, and Vietnam.”
“Though poorly known, radiation breeding has produced thousands of useful mutants and a large portion of the world’s crops, including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava, and sorghum. The mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta and the mutant barley for beer and fine whisky,” he adds. “The mutations can improve yield, quality, taste, size and resistance to disease and can help plants adapt to diverse climates and conditions.”
However, it’s tough to confirm this and locate any information on these international programs or their results because the projects are still hidden from the public eye.
How does atomic gardening work?
Atomic gardening works by blasting seeds with gamma rays, ion beams, and electrons or subjecting them to various chemicals to produce random DNA mutations. In most cases, nuclear physicists would expose seeds to radioactive cobalt-60 in hazardous cabinets or large fields. Scientists would generally arrange plants in circles divided into wedges around the radiation source in the field’s center.
As expected, the plants nearest to the radiation source mostly died, while those receiving lower doses behind these sometimes grew with new and occasionally exciting traits. Technicians would then lower the radiation source back into the ground and check the surrounding area for radiation. Scientists in protective gear would then cultivate the plants that successfully acquired desirable characteristics and distribute their seeds to unknown facilities.
Mutagenesis has also been trialed in space using microgravity and cosmic radiation to mutate flora. China has been performing radiation farming in outer space since 1987, where they have cultivated 66 mutant varieties through their breeding program – with research indicating that chromosomal aberrations significantly increase in aerospace compared to earth-bound counterparts.
Regulation is also a grey area for these crops, which may or may not be widely distributed in our food chain now. Unlike GMO crops, which use a far more targetted approach where specific genes are modified, authorities have discussed potential health risks with plants developed via mutagenesis where unspecified random DNA is mutated. Still, reports from the US National Academy of Sciences state that there is no scientific justification for regulating genetically engineered crops while not doing so for mutation breeding crops.
Currently, several certified organic brands, whose companies support strict labeling or outright bans on GMO crops, sell branded products derived from mutagenic processes without any labeling or declaration referencing genetic manipulation. There are also doubts that authorities could reliably identify these mutant foods, some of which have been bred and crossbred with natural strains since the end of the second world war.
Are GMO foods limiting genomic research?
Dr. Pierre Lagoda also recounts mutagenesis has saved crops in the developing world, providing a lifeline to the people reliant on these harvests. For instance, virus-resistant mutant trees bred using gamma rays halted a virus that killed cacao trees in Ghana. While in Vietnam, the agency helped spawn mutant rice that grew better in acidic and saline soils, where it produced four times higher yields, helping to keep farmers and their families alive.
And yet experts describe the engineering of GMO crops as using a scalpel on DNA code and mutation farming as using a hammer. Simply put, GMO editing is much more elegant and controlled than the radiation farming we’ve already been using. But with the genome of millions of plant species still to decipher the allure of gamma gardens and their random selection still calls scientists from across the globe to aid in this massive DNA decoding operation and create mutations not even yet conceived in a GMO laboratory.
As bizarre as they may seem, it’s hard to ignore the benefit of these gamma gardens — and even harder to believe that only one is now in existence. Which begs the question if multiple radiation farms are still active, why are they hidden? Or more to the point, WHAT is being hidden and by whom? Now that’s some real food for thought.