Before there were party stores with more colors of balloons than jelly beans, before children’s birthdays required party planners, magicians or pony rides—there were watermelons. Seed spitting contests, pin the tail on the melon, or the hoe-down hit of all time: tossing a huge melon, smeared with shortening, into a lake along with the challenge of bringing it back to shore.
Hosting such unruly celebrations these days wouldn’t be so simple. There’d be waivers to sign before children could approach the beach, and mediators to hire so the kids whose arms the melon slipped out of could be consoled. But most difficult would be tracking down the right melon for the job. Half of those you see nowadays are either seedless or pocket-sized varieties that wouldn’t work at all.
Which raises the question: what’s up with watermelons? Not to mention all the other exotic produce we find at upscale grocers. From weirdly shaped tomatoes and triple sweet corn, to gargantuan heads of cabbage, there’s always something new; designer hybrids, heirloom strains or G.M.O. [Genetically Modified Organism] replacements. It’s entertaining to have a broad selection of produce whenever we feel like it, but are hybrids, heirlooms and G.M.O.s healthy choices?
When picking produce—since growing and labeling standards for organic produce are well-regulated—buying organic (preferably from a local farmer who you know) is safest. Heirlooms and hybrids may be grown organically, but unless they are labeled “organic” they may have been grown with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
The term “heirloom” refers to any variety of plant that has been around for at least 50 years, though some heirloom varieties date back 150 years or more. Many unusual watermelon varieties are heirlooms—the fruit dates back 5,000 years to Africa, where it proliferated as a plentiful source of clean, transportable water. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated (O.P.), which means that seeds from the plant, if properly collected and saved for the next growing season, will produce “true to form,” or exactly the same, the next year. Some heirloom growers require that their produce have a known story or history associated with it, though this is not mandatory.
Unlike heirlooms, hybrid plants are produced by grafting —securing the cut top of two different plants so they grow into a single plant. Successful grafts result in plants that can produce seeds with characteristics from both “parent” plants. However, many hybrids are sterile, and all tend to gradually revert in characteristic back to one of the “parents” rather than producing seeds of a consistent new variety.
G.M.O. crops are completely different from hybrids. Both techniques can be used to control increased crop production, resistance to pests, adaptation to specific growing conditions or to have a longer shelf life. They differ in that grafting does not change the basic characteristics of plants, whereas the G.M.O. technology does.
With G.M.O.s, the very D.N.A. of a plant is altered. Though this “transgenic” technology has been at the center of considerable controversy, raising questions about both health and business practices, it’s been common in the mainstream marketplace since the late 1990s. It is not uncommon for animals fed G.M.O. corn to develop serious health problems, and there is mounting evidence that increases in human allergies are related to G.M.O. soybeans and other products.
The most widely grown G.M.O. crops are designed to withstand high concentrations of herbicides. Consequently, farmers often protect crops by using more herbicide (2.5 times as much according to a study of 8,000 field trials) than do farmers growing non-G.M.O. crops. Other G.M.O. crops have been engineered to produce an insecticide themselves which, according to Greenpeace, is perhaps “the greatest threat to sustainable agriculture on the planet.”
In addition to health concerns, there are ethical questions. Are newly engineered products safe to introduce into the environment? Large companies such as Monsanto frequently launch legal battles against small farmers who inadvertently grew crops from patented seeds that blew onto their land from G.M.O. crops in neighboring fields.
Smaller farmers are painted into a corner, insecticide use is increasing and G.M.O. crops are flourishing because, as Monsanto said in a recent statement explaining the $860 million acquisition of a Dutch greenhouse firm to expand its biotechnology of produce business, “This is what the consumer wants.”
For those of us looking for ways to bring to life the practice of mindfulness in how we relate to others and our world, taking a stand on how we support the agricultural system in the country is an excellent place to focus. Is it really our right to have strawberries in the dead of winter, or corn that defies nature’s long-evolved system for reproduction and survival? The choice is ours each time we pause for a moment before picking up that pocket-sized watermelon to look at the label and decipher its origin.
MARY TAYLOR is an avid student of yoga and the gastronomic arts, having studied in India and France. The author of three cookbooks and co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality, Mary teaches workshops and seminars on food, eating and yoga. She is the director of The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.
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