It Takes $5 Million and a Cornell Scientist to Create Perfect Broccoli

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Swedish horticulturalist and Cornell professor Thomas Bjorkman is getting excitingly close to the end of a years-long quest to perfect one nature's most perfect vegetables. And when he's done, you may never have bad broccoli again.

Okay, so he's not so much perfecting the vegetable as he's perfecting a series of strains that can be more easily grown on the East Coast. Broccoli doesn't deal well with hot summer nights in states like South Carolina, and it doesn't do any better riding across the country in a truck for four or five days. This is why you end up grimacing at limp, yellow heads of broccoli at the grocery store all summer long.

Bjorkman wants to change all that. By selecting for the traits that yield deep green broccoli with a crisp texture and loads of glucoraphanin, the compound in broccoli that helps to prevent cancer, the Cornell professor is a leader in a larger effort to create vegetables that people, especially kids, actually want to eat "If you’ve had really fresh broccoli, you know it’s an entirely different thing," Bjorkman recently told The New York Times. "And if the health-policy goal is to vastly increase the consumption of broccoli, then we need a ready supply, at an attractive price."


The effort is important enough to have garnered $3.2 million in grants from the Department of Agriculture and at least $1.7 million from private companies. Although it won't be ready for a few years, this perfect broccoli strain will not only improve Americans' diets. It will also improve the environment by cutting down on greenhouse gases burned to transport the crop from California to the rest of the country and boost the farming industry as a whole by producing higher yields.

There is a downside. In order to make major changes in the agriculture industry, scientists like Bjorkman has to work with agriculture giants like Monsanto. Farmers and food experts bemoan the presence of companies like Monsanto in the future of America's food system, but the fact of the matter is that they already control a large amount of the agriculture business. To change the agriculture business, you have to work with the people that control the agriculture business. It's tough to argue with Bjorkman's reasoning. To be effective, we have to work with the consolidated seed industry but not exclusively," Bjorkman said. "We want to make this as widely available as possible." Now if science could just perfect a cheese sauce to match… [NYT]


Image via Flickr / woodleywonderworks