Since the dawn of agrarian society over 10,000 years ago, humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for our own benefit and evolutionary advantage creating, in many cases to a startling extent, larger, tamer, meatier, sweeter, more diverse and robust versions of the original. By the late seventeenth century, the introduction of horticulture (horticulture’s literal translation is garden + culture), intensified the desire and ability to design plants as an extension of taste and fashion. Seeds were suddenly commodities, advertised in catalogues, leaflets and books describing “Mammoth”, “Giant” and “Perfection” fruits, vegetables and flowers. The Burpee Company, one of the first seed companies in America, was one of many to create a new generation of originals including an extra-long carrot, the first seedless tomato and, for convenience, a personalsized “Snackpac” watermelon. Today seed companies, supported by increasingly sophisticated gene sequencing technologies, are able to rapidly modify and optimise their future crops with unprecedented speed and precision. However, fear and scepticism over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) within food remains strong globally. Even in the United States, where genetically engineered foods are the most utilised, 39% of all Americans believe the technology is bad for their health according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. While cheaper, more adaptable and scalable food solutions remain key for large agricultural companies, for food brands, the potential of GMOs promises something different: the ability to create completely unique, ownable aesthetic and taste experiences.
One leader in branded genetic design, surprisingly, is the discount giant Walmart. To find a new competitive edge under the increased threat of Amazon, Walmart opened its Culinary and Innovation Center, a laboratory dedicated to the creation of new kinds of foods completely distinct and exclusive to Walmart in 2016. These innovations have ranged from clever repackaging, peculiar flavour combinations, including “Birthday Cake Surprise Instant Oatmeal” and deep red coloured fruit punch-brined pickles known as “Tropickles” to, in some instances, full-blown genetic tweaks of their products. Over the last two years, using traditional yet intensive plant breeding, Walmart has released a whole new collection of branded fruits and vegetables including special tomatoes that can be shipped cross country and still taste fresh (much like the first failed GMO product, the Flavr Savr tomato), a bright yellow watermelon, a doubly sweet cantaloupe and, perhaps most arrestingly of all, cotton candy flavoured grapes.
Walmart is not alone in pushing for a more designed food future. Barry Callebaut, the Zurich-based chocolate manufacturer, recently released a cacao plant thirteen years in development that is capable of producing the world’s first “Ruby Chocolate”, a rusty pink variation completely novel to the cacao family. Even Dan Barber, the father of the farm-to-table food concept, has started his own seed company this year, Row 7, in the hopes of proliferating and resurrecting lost vegetable variants and flavours. The brand, which describes itself as a “seed company dedicated to deliciousness”, offers a sweet Habanada pepper, a buttery potato and an intensely cucumber-flavoured cucumber as part of their first collection.
These developments come at a time when the public, fuelled by social media image culture, is more obsessed and tantalised by the aesthetics of food than ever before (to date there are over 169,657,321 images on Instagram tagged #foodporn). The result for brands is consumers willing to go further and pay more to discover the special, unique, and visually alluring. In the case of Barry Callebaut, this obsession has translated into an almost instantaneous deal with the food and beverage giant Nestlé, starting with the sale of limited-edition pink chocolate collections for the Japanese market.
Although almost all food brands experimenting in bio-design are still using traditional plant breeding methods, their success in introducing novel products suggests the beginning of a cultural reappraisal. This, in combination with innovations such as the gene editing tool CRISPR, which refines and speeds up the plant breeding process, points to a future in which our foods are designed at an increasingly elemental level. In 2018 alone, two new plants made possible by CRISPR are hitting American supermarket shelves, a non-browning mushroom developed by Penn State University and the Sunion, an onion that promises no tears no matter how finely it is chopped. The difference for food brands and seed companies, coming off of nearly thirty years of GMO taboos, will now mean winning both consumers’ trust and seducing their imaginations. Beyond bringing GMOs closer to the mainstream, as food brands and others work toward new novelties, it may be possible to envision a future in which our monocultures may be repopulated with a renewed diversity. Some biologists have even gone so far as to resurrect the forgotten tastes and smells of extinct plants and animals. The synthetic biology lab Gingko Bioworks has already created a perfume from roses that have been extinct for over 200 years. In the near-term, while much remains unclear on the politics of GMOs, one thing is for certain: we think and feel with our gut, not just our hearts and minds.