Like nuclear power, whale hunting and the use of preservatives before it, genetic modification has become a cause célèbre among the self-styled ecoscenti who care oh-so much about how far humanity has strayed from what’s “natural.”
But what is natural? It’s a slippery term to fully define, and one that has many meanings for many people.
Applied to animal agriculture, much of what constitutes modern production science is deemed “unnatural” by critics. Applied elsewhere, however, the tolerance level seems far broader.
Take seedless fruit, for instance. As far as Mother Nature’s concerned, that phrase is an oxymoron. The sole reason plants develop fruit is to propagate their seeds. The nutritional value of the fruit is merely a come-on to get animals to do the plant’s reproductive work for them.
But the very same “enlightened” folks who condemn GMOs have no problem with seedless fruit. In fact, seedless watermelons shouldn’t bother anyone, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board. Here’s their explanation: “A seedless watermelon is a sterile hybrid created by crossing male pollen (with 22 chromosomes) for watermelon with a female watermelon flower (with 44 chromosomes). When the seeded fruit matures, the small white seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. This is similar to a mule, produced by crossing a horse with a donkey.”
Yeah, with one huge difference: People bred donkeys with horses because they wanted an animal more economical to feed than a horse but also a stronger pack animal than a burro. The resulting sterility was an unfortunate side effect; the sterility of seedless watermelon is intentional.
Now, regardless of your views on how natural a giant seedless fruit that never has and never will exist in nature might be, seedless watermelons represent a severe trade-off between taste and convenience. Just listen to what commenters have to say on the “What About Watermelon” website (a site that’s supposed to be devoted to praising seedless watermelons!):
- “Seedless watermelons look good, have nice color but have no taste. I want the seedful watermelons back!”
- “Seedless watermelons are tasteless, bland and too chewy. I’d pay double for a good seeded watermelon.”
- “I forgot how delicious REAL watermelon was until I visited relatives in Italy. They don’t have seedless watermelons there, and my goodness! The taste was remarkable: Juicy, crisp, sweet—not dry and rubbery like a seedless.”
- “Seedless melons are for people with sheep brains. My taste buds remember what real watermelons taste like. I refuse to buy seedless melons.”
- “I’ve been growing watermelons for 50 years and selling to a local produce company and farmer’s market. I haven’t found a seedless variety yet that doesn’t taste like it was crossed with a cucumber. You won’t find me selling a seedless ‘cukemelon’, nor serving one to family and friends. I’ll spit seeds ‘til the day I die.”
In the midst of all this vitriol, however, there’s not one word suggesting that “modern” watermelons are not only tasteless but unnatural.
Or how about a more recent phenomenon. Ever heard of Dorkies, Schweeines, Beabulls or Cava-Tzu?
They’re the stars of the new wave of “designer dogs,” experimental cross-breeds that even the breeders admit they can’t always predict the characteristics, personalities and long-term health effects of these previously unknown canines.
I guess it’s no longer enough to own a registered breed, like a German shepherd, Labrador retriever or Irish setter. Or, heaven forbid, a “mixed breed” without any pedigree (which, one could argue, is exactly the description of a designer dog).
Even worse, these new wave breeders are busy creating larger, more powerful designer dogs for the macho male who wants something bigger and badder than a pit bull or a rottweiler. Such breeds as the Cane Corso, Tibetan mastiff and the African boerboel are, in the words of nationally know animal expert Terry Jester, “Dogs that make the pit bull look like a child’s stuffed toy in comparison.”
Yet where’s the public reaction to a trend that’s disturbing on several levels? There’s virtually none, other than a short-term, localized reaction when one of these dogs attacks somebody. And none of what little negativity there is touches on the idea that creating new lines of Frankenmutts might be a violation of what we used to consider the “natural order.”
Oh, no. That kind of deep-seated outrage is reserved for plants—horrible, evil plants created to resist herbicides. Nothing is more sacred than manual weeding, after all, and any scientist who figures out how to improve on that age-old chore must do so the way they did with seedless fruit and designer dogs.
You know, “naturally.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.