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An Insult To History

January 22, 2009



Traditionally, the words of Dan Barber, executive chef and owner of Blue Hill restaurants, would pronounce my attention. Barber is the author of speeches meant to embrace the natural world, and, most recently, discovered a Farmer from Spain who found an ethical way to harvest foie gras by allowing geese to feed unfettered on the land. This occurrence caused a revelation in Barber’s outlook, and he praised the Farmer for figuring out a method to do away the “the insult to history” – that is, to stop disrupting the method of nature. From this revelation he’s demanding a “new conception” to the way farming functions, so that it may regain harmony with nature. A harmony practiced by the Spanish Farmer. But is this a “new conception”? 

When America was first discovered the settlers found it be the land of ‘plenty’. They saw an astounding number of resources. The perspective of the landscape included an abundance of game in the natural world said to only be possible by the managed methods of American Indians. Thereafter, diseases and other ailments passed onto the American Indians from the settlers during contact in trade destroyed the landscape. These epidemic elements disfigured not only the American Indians, but also the American land their care had beautified.

This “new conception” Barber spoke of, is not new at all. William Cronon in 1983 wrote about this ‘new conception’ in his book “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” where the natural world stood in harmony with its inhabitants. American Indians understood their role as to listen to the animals and beings around them in order to find harmony from the satisfaction of these animals. In turn, they provided an understory conducive to deer and elk, or planted multi-crop rows with bean vines scaling a corn stalk. The “insult to history” came when settlers began to take and tell the land what it should do for them, rather than what the settlers could do for the land. And history still bares this insult today, but from a new culprit. Today it’s genetic science that has challenged the natural role of things, and begun a new command in the dialogue of an insult to history. 

So, it is with my great disappointment that I quote from chef Dan Barber on the matter of genetic engineering:  

Most people, including old-fashioned agrarians and sustainable-agriculture purists, can accept refractometers and ultrasound machines. But when scientists start experimenting with genetic manipulation, there’s a collective feeling of unease, if not creepiness. So on the face of it, a scientist like Autar Mattoo may appear to be the Antichrist of sustainable agriculture. A plant physiologist, Mattoo works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (strike one against him), based in a lab just outside Washington, DC (strike two), and he selects or modifies vegetable and fruit genes expressed during the ripening process (enough to be banned from the ballpark). But Mattoo has spent the past three years working at the USDA’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory, marrying the science of genetic engineering with the tenets of sustainable agriculture. His central theme is that we’ve lost our way with farming, and his research, he says, is one way “to regain flavor and nutritional content in the hopes of helping the small farmer.”

Mattoo is originally from Kashmir, India. He is short and quietly intense, and when he speaks, his words are measured. “My colleagues and I developed a new line of tomato recently that featured a 200 to 300 percent increase in lycopene—a natural antioxidant,” he says, and then smiles brilliantly, adding, “And the process also improved juice quality, with higher fructose-sugar and acid-sugar ratios.”

I ask if that means the tomato is sweeter. “It has a special taste—tingly, sweet and juicy,” he says carefully, and then adds, with another smile, “It means they taste very good.” Remember that bite of incredibly ripe and delicious tomato in the middle of August that tasted like it was perfumed with apricots? Mattoo says he might someday be able to identify the gene that expresses apricot flavor and activate it for a better-tasting tomato: “I will be able to switch it on, just like that.”

Mattoo identifies specific genes—those responsible for nutrition or flavor—and then manipulates them. The difference between his creations and other genetically modified crops is that he is turning on or off genes that are naturally present in the plant. He’s not taking genes from, say, a pig’s heart and inserting them into a tomato plant. And his work benefits the small farmer. Companies creating genetically modified plants have engineered “terminator” seeds, which force the farmer to buy new seed every year; Mattoo’s seeds can be passed along through generations of farmers.

Which brings us back to farmers, who have saved seeds and crossbred plants for hundreds of years in search of better nutrition and flavor. Chefs have long had relationships with these farmers—the ones they name on their menus, showing their support of local, sustainable agriculture. It won’t be long before these names are joined by a new breed of agri-innovators, the Ferran Adriàs of the farm. What could be more exciting—or delicious—than that?

Dan Barber, an F&W Best New Chef 2002, is chef and co-owner of NYC’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY.

Taste – is always a character our mouths will settle for. Although, these plants may have given up a part of their taste in order to dispel disease and other problems. What we turn On or Off in a plant, may, in fact, be turning On a vulnerability. Plants, just as we do, have to turn away from tastes because of what harm it may cause to their system.

Genetic Manipulation by laboratories is not a method harmonious to the natural world. This field knows little to nothing about the long-term outcomes of switching a gene on, or turning it off. The external factors can indeed be limitless, and basing science on what is good for human beings does not also translate into what is good for nature. The biggest insult our generation is adding to history is an “ahistorical being”. A history we turn on and off at will, may one day just turn off. 

Written by J.B. Pribanic of The Erie Wire 


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