Michael Mazourek is a vegetable breeder who specializes in adapting produce that will allow it to evolve to climate changes, present pathogens, as well as to make it vegetables more delicious and nutritious. Featured in Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, MIchael works as an assistant professor at Cornell University, in upstate New York.
Michael’s vegetable breeding program is focused on developing new cultivars of pea, squash, melon, cucumber, bean and pepper crop for organic farming systems. This process of breeding new varieties through traditional methods of cross-pollination is informed by surveys of natural diversity and studies into the underlying genetic mechanisms. His grower-driven traits focus on fungal and insect resistances in regionally adapted backgrounds to provide a reliable, productive harvest and reduce the need for pesticide applications. His consumer-driven traits focus on color, quality, flavor and novelty to drive the consumption of naturally nutritious food.
As we face a looming environmental crisis, how do you predict that our food systems will change?
We need to focus on producing more natural and ecologically friendly ways of growing food in harmony with nature, rather than against it. Hopefully, we’ll see a change in emphasis on where we eat in the food system, and increases in our plant consumption. This requires that plants inspire us to make better diet choices, which is where a certain extent of my work comes in.
The food we currently have access to has different ways of appealing to us. It triggers either some very basic primitive part of our brains and taste buds or it is a food product that has been specifically designed to peak our senses. We can create this same effect with whole produce - it’s simply a matter of being able to create better produce that can compete, against less healthy and more environmentally detrimental options.
As a vegetable breeder, my work focuses on balancing a combination of flavour, nutrition and convenience in a vegetable. We then do a lot of research on active working farms to make sure that whatever we breed is going to be something that will also work for the farmer.
After your job of breeding the ideal produce is complete, do you have any say into whose hands these seeds will eventually fall into?
We share our materials with a seed company, that has the capacity to handle the full distribution process. Any of the seed catalogues for example that you might get in the mail, or the larger wholesale ones -- we’re providing the new seeds to a distributer, they provide them to a grower, and a portion of the proceeds are returned to us to continue to support public plant breeding.
What is public plant breeding?
Public plant breeding for us is comprised of our research program here at Cornell: It has a heritage leads back to 1942, so it’s the University effort to continually try to make the best produce that growers need, that the consumer is going to want, and most importantly, that can be independent in acting as an alternative to the typical market forces that would be driving the business in the for-profit sector of plant breeding.
Would you say that the fear of technological intervention in our agricultural industry is misguided?
In the 1980’s there was the first promise of biotechnology. At the same time, the New York Times wrote an article about being able to have pork chops grow on trees by having the ability to change the DNA in an organism. Anything to do with change and technology tends to spark unrealistic comparisons to science fiction and it’s often dramatized for effect. There’s certainly a need to do a better job of science education; making it more accessible and letting people be more comfortable with the approaches that are being used. It’s easy for people to confuse technology with innovation. There are technologies that look at adjusting our current agricultural system and mask issues as we continue to carry on as we have been, and then there are more whole-system approaches that are not just looking at a the genes of a plant, but adapting and evolving the plant and allowing it (the plant) to find its own solution. We have in fact made fantastic scientific leaps and bounds in our ability to change, directly manipulate, and alter the DNA in an organism, but this is still a fundamentally different approach than the much more evolutionary approach that is plant breeding. It’s a whole plant adaptation of resiliency.
In what ways can technology serve as a means to not only improve but revolutionize our current food/agricultural systems?
The history of technology in agriculture has been to develop technological solutions to try to conquer nature and to eliminate impediments. The difference between my plant breeding approach and a biotech approach is how one defines the problem or challenge to be solved. The biotech approach is a reductionist approach that tries to define an issue that can can be addressed through a technologically enabled intervention. The issue with this approach is that nature is more complex than we think and will evolve around simple barriers we construct. We need an evolutionary approach that is coupled with using technology to try to understand the complexity of nature. Plant breeding provides multi-tiered solutions from within nature to create plants that will thrive in nature. Technology should add value to the process and help guide the approach rather than look to create shortcuts.
This interview had been edited and condensed from its original format.