“Plants, it turns out, are a lot like people. It typically takes some kind of challenge to bring out the best in them.”
Though evolutions in agriculture bring us many advantages – increasing seasonal yield by reducing losses due to disease and insects, and enhancing the size, visual uniformity, and thus the marketability of a higher percentage of produce – they can also, in some cases, take away from the product’s natural health benefits. Cultivated, commercial foods are pampered relative to their wild equivalents – and have no need for natural defenses to limit their size and boost the nutrient concentration that makes them so valuable to our diet. The flavonoid-rich blueberry – proven to reduce cellular damage and the effects of aging, improve cardiovascular and brain functioning, and reduce the risk of cancer – is a perfect example.
Mary Ann Lila, a plant scientist at the University of Illinois who has been focusing her research on the nutritional compounds in berries, stresses the importance of abiotic stress – including drought, extreme ultraviolet radiation, or cold temperatures. "Modern breeding focuses on qualities to attract the consumer. When we increase the size of a fruit, it is at the expense of the secondary components that would be greater in the wild plant" – particularly in northern climates, Lila explains, where the harsh growing season produces berries with flavonoid concentrations equal to medicinal, “nutraceutical” values.
Such plant adaptations are also sympathetic to the needs of the inhabitants of the area, and further the argument for eating food found locally. Before grocery stores began shipping and stocking foods from all over the world, people were forced to glean sustenance from the land – a difficult task in northern parts of the country. The naturally occurring, higher doses of nutrients found in local wild produce, however, help supplement, through quality, the reduced quantity in those climates.
Lila is just one of a number of scientists working to convince the public that bigger is not always better. Rather than genetically modifying produce to be larger and resilient to disease, they seek produce that is healthier – even if aesthetically impaired. Using precedents from viticulture – namely the infection of grapes with botrytis to heighten flavonoids levels more than tenfold in neighboring, disease-free fruit – scientists and farmers are developing produce that is even higher in nutrients than their wild counterparts. The next step is promoting awareness of their inner – rather than outer – beauty.