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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 1

Building Better Fruits and Veggies without GMOs

Making modern supermarket produce so big and hardy drained a lot of its flavor. Scientists now have the technology to bring it back—without genetic engineering

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The modern supermarket produce aisle is full of visual illusions. The strawberries are plump and glistening; the tomatoes smooth-skinned and lustrous; the melons firm and brightly colored—yet all too often devoid of flavor. We have no one to blame for these bland beauties but ourselves. By selectively breeding crops to be as prodigious as possible and to survive weeks of shipping and storage in dark, cool conditions, we have sapped flavor, aroma and nutrition from our food.

Consider the dilemma that cantaloupes presented to plant breeders. To enjoy a cantaloupe's full flavor, you must pick and eat it at peak ripeness, before it goes too soft. Toward the later stages of a cantaloupe's development, a burst of the hormone ethylene causes the fruit to ripen and soften quite quickly. This speedy puberty made transporting cantaloupes across states or from one country to another problematic: even on ice, the melons turned to mush by the voyage's end. So plant breeders decreased the levels of ethylene in cantaloupes intended for long-distance shipping by cross-pollinating only melons that naturally produced the lowest amounts of the hormone. Without a strong spurt of ethylene, the melons stay firm on the trip from field to produce aisle, but the chemical reactions that produce a ripe melon's aroma and taste never happen.

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