By Tony Hunter, food futurist
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the desirability of using CRISPR gene editing for food crops and animals. But it’s little known by consumers that a significant number of food crops have been produced using random mutations induced by methods including gamma irradiation, X-rays and even mutagenic chemicals.
It began in 1928 with crop scientist and Geneticist Lewis J. Stadler’s work at Missouri University. He exposed barley, maize, wheat, and oats to X-Rays and demonstrated proof of mutation. However, at the time he was quite skeptical about mutation as a method of crop improvement. If only he’d known! By 1936 the first X-ray induced plant was released, the “Chlorina” strain of tobacco, grown in what is now Indonesia.
It was not until 1944 that the use of chemically induced mutation in plants was first reported and only in 1966 was the first chemically induced mutant variety, Luther of Barley, introduced in the US.
After the use of nuclear weapons in 1945 and the start of the Cold War in 1947 people were becoming afraid of nuclear technology. To counter this, Atomic Gardens, part of the US Atoms for Peace project, were developed in the 1950s to improve crops and as a demonstration of the peaceful use of nuclear fission. Gamma irradiated seeds were even sold by enterprising entrepreneurs to the general public and in some cases, the public’s feedback was solicited by the aptly named Atomic Gardening Society.
However, it was with the 1964 establishment of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture that plant mutation breeding became a common global tool. To date, more than 3,200 mutant varieties of crops, ornamentals, and trees have been officially released for commercial use.
Some examples of common mutant crops are the Rio Red grapefruit, accounting for over 70% of all grapefruit grown in Texas. Calrose 76 rice released in 1977 is the source of many other crossbred varieties including many popular varieties in Australia including Amaroo, Jarrah, and Illabong.
But that’s the past, what’s happening now? Join me next month for Part 2 of this article, “The Space Rice Race”.
Tony Hunter is a global futurist, food scientist, speaker, and foresight strategy consultant. He consults and speaks globally, using his distinctive combination of scientific qualifications, business experience, and detailed understanding of exponential food technologies to deliver a unique perspective on the future of food.