Integrative Nutrition Blog

“Perfect” Broccoli: Healthy or Profit-Driven?

July 12, 2013

Though many aspects of the field of nutrition are still mired in controversy, there’s one piece of advice that virtually all researchers and experts agree upon: eat more leafy green vegetables. Greens are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, and consuming them daily can dramatically reduce the risk for obesity, heart disease, and even cancer.

Yet according to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control, only 26% of American adults eat vegetables three or more times a day – that includes lettuce on a hamburger – and only 17% of dinners include a salad.

Why is there such a strong aversion to vegetables? The reasons are complex, but many people find fresh produce to be costly, inconvenient, and unpalatable. Though vegetables may be the healthiest choice, for many people, they are also the least attractive.   

As detailed in a recent New York Times article, one scientist is aiming to change that by creating a new version of a nutritional powerhouse: broccoli. According to Thomas Bjorkman, a plant scientist at Cornell University, broccoli is only tasty when eaten right after it has been picked; it becomes bitter, rubbery, and sulfurous if it sits around very long.

Unfortunately, because 90% of broccoli sold in the U.S. is grown in California, most Americans only have access to unappealing broccoli that has been shipped long distances and has spent waiting time in a warehouse.

Bjorkman and his research team have bred a new form of broccoli that can grow in hotter climates all around the country and is easy and cheap to grow in large volumes. Even better, the broccoli is crisp, slightly sweet, and tender. For a nutritional advantage, the lab aims to maximize the concentration of the plant’s cancer-fighting nutrients.

By addressing consumer complaints and preferences in the lab, the team’s ultimate goal is to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables. The Cornell lab has recently created snap peas without the stringiness, apples that don’t brown when sliced, and full-flavored habanero peppers without the spice.

“If you’ve had really fresh broccoli, you know it’s an entirely different thing,” said Bjorkman. “And if the health-policy goal is to vastly increase the consumption of broccoli, then we need a ready supply, at an attractive price.”

Another benefit of Bjorkman’s broccoli is its relatively gentle ecological footprint: growing produce locally eliminates the need for gas guzzling long-distance trucking, generating less greenhouse gases.

Yet Bjorkman has partnered with Monsanto, and the corporate giant is now selling the new broccoli seeds to farmers in Georgia. This collaboration is giving people pause. Though the broccoli is produced through fairly traditional breeding methods and is not considered a genetically modified organism, the politics of such a partnership seem unsavory and largely profit-driven. “It’s another example of Monsanto’s control of the food supply,” said NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle.

Furthermore, should we really try to create “perfect” broccoli, snap peas, or apples? Many foods are already delicious and nutritious just as nature made them. And though it’s an excellent goal to make fresh produce more accessible and affordable for everyone, this could be achieved by channeling subsidies for corn and soy towards fruit and vegetables – not by further lining Monsanto’s deep pockets.

What do you think? Considering both the obesity crisis and food politics, do you support this new version of broccoli?

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