One of the first academic plant researchers to focus exclusively on organic agriculture, Molly Jahn, PhD, has developed more than 25 new vegetable varieties, many of which are naturally resistant to disease and cold. Why is this so important? Because with an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable varieties having died out in the last century, our food supply is growing increasingly limited and vulnerable. We caught up with Jahn, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to talk about genes, seeds, and the future of produce.
So what’s the difference between what you do and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
Genetic engineering introduces new traits by actually cutting and splicing DNA molecules to create combinations that would not be possible through sexual reproduction. My work is based on sexual reproduction. For example, I may cross a wild squash carrying resistance to a leaf disease with a cultivated garden squash. Then I pick the individual progeny plants that are closest to the cultivated squash but still carry the disease resistance from the wild relative. This cycle gets repeated until I get something that will be excellent to eat, highly productive, and disease resistant. It’s a natural process.
What happens to the final product?
We make the new breeds free and available to seed companies. The seed companies can then sell to growers in different regions and ecosystems. It’s a living seed bank.
Why worry about vegetables?
The main issue is the extreme interconnectedness of everything, including the food distribution system. Genetic uniformity [in GMOs] increases plants’ susceptibility to disease and environmental stress, especially when the main vegetables grown in a particular geography aren’t meant to thrive there. What we need are geographic areas that have access to genetically diverse, well-adapted vegetable varieties.