A Chef Discovers Science

Until his favorite heirloom tomatoes died on the vine after succumbing to late blight disease, Chef Dan Barber believed that science when applied to agriculture was "suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic". Unfortunately, this distrust of science hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. It also ignores 100 years of scientific progress.


In 1905, Sir Rowland Biffen generated disease resistant wheat varieties, demonstrating for the first time that Mendel's laws of inheritance could be applied to plant breeding. Today most of the fruits and vegetables that we eat (including those certified organic) carry "natural" disease resistance genes. Without the use of genetically improved crop varieties we would have few ecologically-based tools to combat pests and diseases. The alternative is overuse of pesticides, many of which harm the environment and human health.

Does it take a 20% increase in the cost of heirloom tomato salad and commentary by a famous chef before science can be seen as a positive force for public good in the U.S.?

For some, this is apparently so. I hope this changes because without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an environmentally balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.

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I remember having two reactions when I first read the piece on this in the nytimes. The first was hope that this would finally be something plant scientists/breeders and foodies could find common cause on, and the second was shock that there are people out there who are opposed not just to genetic engineering, but even conventional breeding.

Do they not realize heirloom tomatoes were created by selective breeding, just as resistant cultivars are created today?

While I agree that agricultural technology is good and doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves, heirlooms also have their place. I know several growers who grow heirloom vegetables because of either their unique characteristics or flavor. They are just like any other specialty crop and fill a market niche.

Thanks for the comments. The very first since I joined Science blogs.

I wondered if others had seen that article and read it with disbelief as did I.

The answer I think is that most people do not realize that heirloom tomatoes were created through breeding. Most people believe that the seed the farmer uses was collected in the wild.

Certainly there is a valuable place for Heirlooms. They are fun and they taste good but they are no more "natural" than any other tomato. And, unfortunately, cannot feed the world.

What James said.

Our predecessors who passed down these heirlooms may not have worn lab-coats or used test tubes or lasers but they were still doing science.

well, the idea that people may not understand that selective breeding may have led to many of the current foodstuffs that we rely on is pretty average.

look up 'banana comfort' on youtube for another famous example...

how many people know what you get if you plant an apple seed?

For me the nice thing about heirlooms is their diversity. The reason there is such diversity is because back in the day everyone was a breeder of sorts (if only by bulk selection). Modern farming has gotten so far away from that that we are at an extreme where there are so few breeders that very few modern varieties are used by the majority of farmers.
What we need is both modern varieties and a wide diversity of varieties. What we need is more breeders.

I don't think anybody is arguing against preserving and cherishing heirloom tomatoes...?

We have to recognize there are two different drivers of demand here. If you are growing tomatoes for people with disposable income who want something that tastes as good as possible, heirloom all the way. On the other hand, if you are trying to combat malnutrition in an area of the world where agriculture is routinely very difficult, maybe you want to prioritize hardiness over other concerns..?

For feeding a country like America, the answer is probably much more complicated... but yeah, I think anybody who said "Heirloom tomatoes are pointless!" would be equally wrong as someone who said "Modern intensively-bred tomatoes are pointless!"

The first thing I was reminded of when I read this article was the problem with wheat rust starting to overwhelm the resistance genes that were bred into wheat cultivars 50 or so years ago. Tomato blight is not as serious, but it should serve as a reminder of how dependant we are on agriculture and how unstable food supply can be given 'perfect storm' conditions. A science-based breeding approach is the best option we have for increasing the security of food supply.

As to the debate over flavour, I think good taste is one of the primary reasons we consume food. Very few people would be satisfied with the same bland diet day after day. Unfortunately, flavour is a secondary consideration to plant breeders who are focussed on improving crop yields but I see no reason why flavour could not also be incorporated into a science-based approach to improving crops.

By David Hooks (not verified) on 22 Oct 2009 #permalink

I teach workshops on organic gardening to beginning gardeners. It takes a lot of explaining to get them to understand that hybridization and plant breeding are beneficial.Here in Georgia disease pressure is often intense. Many heirloom varieties cannot stand up to it. I always plant a disease resistant variety as my main crop and add in some heirlooms for variety. There are tremendous variations in flavor among heirlooms. Sweet, acidic, lemony, bland. Just because a tomato is an heirloom does not automatically mean it is preferable to a disease-resistant variety. I have done tastings comparing 5-6 varieties, some heirloom, some not. Each person's ranking is different. You can;t always tell by appearance or taste whether a tomato is an heirloom or not.

I want to thank you for coming to Scienceblogs. I've been casually looking for a blog about Food Science for a while and thanks to PZ Myers endorsement, I found you.
I'm looking forward for future posts. :D

BTW, I love tomatoes. :D

By DreamDevil (not verified) on 22 Oct 2009 #permalink

Weird... As an organic gardener, I'm very much interested in the science side: soil ecology, plant nutrition, breeding, etc. I don't know where this idea of some inherent tension between "science" and either quality or sustainability comes from - if it weren't for science, we wouldn't even be aware of ecological issues.

Dunc, Clearly ecology is a scientific discipline. I think the issue may be that some people are so far removed from science (never studied it in school, dont know any scientists, heard it means industrial agriculture) that they are quite distrustful. Unfortunately some in the slow food movement fan the flames of distrust and "separateness". I find that organic gardeners and farmers that have some science background love to talk about breeding and science and even genetic engineering, but those that did not grow up with science, are often suspicious and fearful. We need to teach plant breeding in high school.

Hm. I think you have misrepresented Dan Barber's article. The quote you attribute to him is not really him expressing his opinion; the full quote reads "To many advocates of sustainability, science, when itâs applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic." That's really not the same thing as saying that he believed that until his heirloom tomatoes died of late blight, whereupon he had a sudden change of heart. He admits that by highlighting heirloom tomatoes on his menu, he is guilty of promoting that view - but again, not the same thing as saying that's what he believes.

Indeed, if you read the whole article, you come away with a realization that Dan Barber has a rather sophisticated understanding of the role of science in agriculture and especially its importance in maintaining a healthy food web. I especially appreciated his pointing out the importance of the land grant university extension agents in helping to preserve agricultural knowledge; he notes that the vanishing of that wisdom from our culture and foodways is truly dangerous, and the underfunding of the extension service is a real problem.

And what you gloss over in reporting on his article is the heart of the story about late blight: it's not heirloom tomatoes that are at the center of this drama. They are just the drive by victims. Late blight was widely dispersed by seedling plants sold at big box stores to lots of back yard gardeners inspired by Michelle Obama and the increasing grow your own food movement. Barber notes that buying your seedlings from a big box store - when they may have traveled 2000 miles to get there - is just as bad for the environment as buying your well-traveled plastic tomatoes in a big chain grocery store. For the health of the local economy, the health of the environment, and the delight of your palate, he urges backyard gardeners to get their seedlings from local growers.

I am glad to see you join ScienceBlogs and appreciate what you are doing here - this is a subject very dear to my heart - but I think you completely missed the boat on this post in your urge to sell the "science is good for agriculture and food!" story.

I thought that the point made toward the end of the article, suggesting that region-specific breeding might be the best way to go, was the most interesting idea. I think that one of the big fears that people have of scientific agriculture is the uniformity. (For example, I despise going to a grocery store and finding two or three varieties of Delicious apple when there are many tastier, locally developed varieties that are not carried.) Regional breeding might allow greater diversity overall, while taking advantage of both traditional breeding and genetic techniques to develop plants that are both tasty and adapted to the environment.

I'm also really glad to see this blog appear here!

Pamela, I'm enjoying the blog and have it bookmarked now.

It's always amazed me that the people who decide what is and isn't certifiably organic allow copper sprays, as mentioned in the linked article. From the consumer health point of view, it's also likely that varieties favored by organic growers for disease resistance could contain high levels of naturally produced plant toxins (potatoes for example can have the nerve toxins chaconine and solanine; apples and cherries produce cyanide). And then there are the post-harvest rots, which can leave aflatoxin residues on organic crops.

By Xenithrys (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

@Peter 5
how many people know what you get if you plant an apple seed?

An apple tree.

Now I actually know this is true as I had two apple trees grown from seeds from store bought apples in my Mothers garden many years ago.

Did you mean something else?

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink


I assume he's talking about the fact that apples are so genetically diverse that any apple tree grown from seed with be very little like either of its parents. That is why grafting is so important in apple growing. Once a particularly tasty, or high yielding apple tree is discovered (or intentionally breed), the only way to propagate it is to graft buds and twigs cut from that tree onto other apple trees, usually chosen for their strong root systems and disease resistance rather than taste. A similar process is necessary to grow seedless oranges since obviously the seedless orange trees can't be grown from seed.

Peter was drawing attention to another complicated, and completely unnatural, process plant breeders and farmers have be performing for hundreds of years without anyone paying much attention.

Yay, a food science blog! Pardon me while I get all excited!

There are certainly a lot of anti-science types in the restaurant business. I'm in the business, and regularly startled by the anti-science sentiments I encounter. When I was in culinary school, only a couple of years ago, I heard students complaining about the amount of science in baking classes, saying they were trying to get chemicals out of their food (during a unit on "molecular gastronomy," which we're not supposed to call it), and other such ridiculous things. It's there out in the wide world, too. I'm in Seattle, which is a fairly hippie town, with most of the scientific focus in the general public being on electronics, technology and programming, and even among those who ought to know better, there's a push against GMO foods and science in gardening. (I had one friend, also culinary school trained, insist that GMO soy was to blame for the (perceived) rise in peanut allergies.)

I don't know that much about GE of food plants, but now I'm definitely interested. Especially now that I'm opening a restaurant that I want to be ecologically responsible, this sounds like an issue on which I should start educating myself.
Thanks for starting this blog! I'll be reading with interest.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

I'm curious about the off-hand comment that heirloom varieties can't feed the world. Why not?

Er, because they're low-yield and vulnerable to disease and insects and soforth? Basically, all the reasons GE plants are more suitable for the job. We've simply got too many people for heirloom tomatoes to be a staple crop, and they fail to often.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

Mad Gastronomer, Thanks for answering the last question. how can I find your restaurant next time I am in seattle?

@ MadGastronomer + Pam Ronald:
You say that as if everybody knows that. But they don't automatically know why GMOs are "better". I'm overeducated and underemployed, and I certainly don't necessarily "know" that. Feel free to explicate, preferably with links and/or references.

We're called The Night Kitchen, and can be found at nightkitchenseattle.com. And if you do come visit, please make sure to ask for the owner and say hi!

I can't help but be confused by why you're asking, as this is precisely what this entry and the article it references are about. This is what I was talking about when I referred to willful ignorance in the comments of the other post: you seem not to have actually read the piece. The entire point of GE foods to date has been to specifically include genes for resistance to disease, insects, and drought or flood, and for high-yield plants. That's what makes them suitable for feeding a huge and dense world population, and what makes low-yield, vulnerable plants less suitable as staples. The heirlooms, while lovely and what I want to eat personally, simply are not capable of feeding the world, and the GE crops are a lot better at it.

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 25 Oct 2009 #permalink

Dan Barber's piece had me scratching my head at times. While he reluctantly comes to the conclusion that hybridization has a purpose after all, he doesn't quite come to the same conclusion about pesticides. The weather in the NE was too wet to get much control, but the farmers who sprayed fungicides did came out ahead. (I was expecting a little sympathy for the devil.) He also alludes to genetic engineering as a useful tool, but doesn't spell that out either. (His customers would revolt.) His statement equating a mega Central Valley tomato farm to a grower with a few acres of the same made me laugh. In the end I was glad he is in the kitchen and not trying to advise farmers.

Terrific start!

Interesting topics and you are a brave Professor to wade into such tumultuous waters.

Thank you.

Heirloom (borrowed from rose growers) and wild are both expressions used very expansively by professional chefs.

They are appealing general descriptions that are quite often applied to fruits and vegetables not grown widely in the area as opposed to not grown widely anywhere anymore. Wild is often used to describe a domesticate that is not readily visually distinguishable from its wild growing counterpart.

Chefs are flogging "heritage" livestock as broadly much to the chagrin of worthwhile organizations like:

One of my professional chef friends called in a panic over an occasional dinner menu that involved a farm raised quail comfit and a ranched elk tenderloin. His struggle was how to describe a dinner for a fashionably anti-industry anti-capitalist market so that the appeal would further his industry and profit margin.

He finally gave up and described as much as possible in French.

Dan Barber finds himself on a similar tightrope as head chef of an operation dedicated to be the apex of both aesthetic and political self indulgence. Spending his days attempting to engineer free range anti-capitalist foie gras with 50% less cruelty on the grounds of a former Rockefeller estate is not task I envy.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

The Big Big Box store evil evil chain Walmart theme isn't really applicable to this problem.

They came from Bonnie. Bonnie is a branch of the Alabama Agricultural Cooperative owned and operated by small farmers.

They maintain greenhouses in 38 states so that they can grow locally for their customers and starter plants don't travel thousands of miles. The suspect plants came from Dresden, Maine and could have become infected at any point anywhere since April.

They recalled the tomatoes at a cost of a million dollars to their members despite the accusation that their plants spread the blight was and remains unproven.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

On the heirloom tomatoes question and feeding the world - without any salient links (sorry!)

The response rather than the question got me thinking - as heirloom tomatoes are low yielding, less disease resistant, and less insect resistant (which I'm assuming is a direct result of being spectacularly inbred - sure I read that somewhere...) I would imagine that they could be made somewhat more tolerant of the two stresses with GE - there's categorically no reason I can see that you could not have GE heirlooms - infact as they are so inbred (or if they are... I may be on shaky ground here) it would seem to me that for any given variety GE would be a better way to get these traits, as any breeding effort would likely have to introduce variation from elsewhere and would therefore likely drastically alter the other qualities of the tomato, whereas, done right, GE would simply add the resistances without the other genetic change.

This may seem a counterintuitive move to some possibly along the view that 'heirlooms are organic' - but an obvious response to this is that there is absolutely no reason that GE could not be considered organic.

This is exactly right and the point that my husband made in our book. one slight problem the USDA rules now state that GE crops cannot be considered organic

Hi HOw are you? Can i know what science clases do we need in college and hihg school to be a chef? please let me know asap


"Can i know what science clases do we need in college and hihg school to be a chef?"

I know this question is for Pam but I spent the day scrounging the Vietnamese markets with an NECI chef and we agreed on the following:

Chemistry is always advisable. Baking is chemistry. It is exact and unforgiving.

The labs associated with chemistry are a good introduction to general safety procedures.

The cooking schools themselves train in issues of hygiene cross contamination and will cover in a cursory fashion some bacteriology.

They also train in garde manger which requires charcuterie. Most of the charcuterie trained chefs I know could pass gross anatomy blindfolded.

The major culinary institutes prefer a managerial or business background because so much about being a successful chef is direction, delegation and cost benefit analysis.

Culinary institutes do not generally require an undergraduate degree although it is desirable.

It is changing but being a chef is still a guild profession with qualification being determined by where, how long and with whom you have worked. It is dependent on mentoring your own creativity and your skills as an autodidact.

The very first order of business is to obtain a copy of Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne and carry it around like a bible. It is the first and remains the best effort to create a taxonomy of ingredients and their uses.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

On what to do to become a chef - rather than which courses to take I'd try and focus on which jobs you can get and what exposure you can get in the business before even heading to a culinary school.

As prometheus notes above - most culinary institutes dont even require an undergrad degree, passion for the subject and experience are what counts (this holds going forward in a career aswell)

It'd be nice if to be a chef (or anyone really..) you had to understand a little more science to make informed statements about GMOs, pesticide useage, etc etc - but to actually get into the career you dont need to know a thing about any of this.

hi i love arnon

By julio garza (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink