Learning to Love G.M.O.s

Not long after the conference, I flew to North Carolina to meet with Baker and his co-founder, Tom Adams. Before starting Pairwise, Baker and Adams each worked at large companies that invested in G.M.O. crops: Adams at Monsanto and Baker at Simplot, where he oversaw the development of a potato that produces less acrylamide, a carcinogen, when fried. (Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, provided some of the initial funding for Pairwise and retains the option to commercialize any innovation in row crops, though not in consumer produce.)

Pairwise’s office is in an airy former textile mill that also houses a yoga studio, a tattoo parlor and several artist studios. When I showed up in February 2020, the area was just recovering from a winter storm that brought snow and black ice. Inside the greenhouses, though, it was warm and humid. “It’s a great place to work in the winter,” said Reiner, who tends to Pairwise’s plants. “In the summer it can get rough.”

In anticipation of my visit, Reiner had set up samples from the company’s “superfood greens project,” which he described as creating “something that’s essentially lettuce but healthier.” Baker noted that Americans trying to eat well often order salads, but around half of those are made with iceberg or romaine lettuce, which have few nutrients and very little fiber. “If those empty leaves could be swapped for a healthy green, it would be a big nutrition boost,” he said. The problem is that nobody really likes the taste of healthy greens. “Do you want to guess what percent of the leafy green market is kale?” Baker asked at one point. “From what we can gather, it’s about 6 and a half percent. And the thing is, kale is known to be extremely good for you. It’s very rich in fiber and micronutrients: vitamins and minerals. But people don’t like to eat it.”

In theory, gene editing could change that. Pairwise’s initial lettuce alternative, mustard greens, are in the same family as kale, Reiner explained, and have better nutritional value. But they’re extremely pungent, a trait the company hopes to minimize. For the tasting, Reiner laid out two varieties of genetically altered mustard greens. The first was beautiful: a dark green leaf veined with red, like a miniature chard. The edited version tasted extremely mild — perfect for salad — but when Reiner talked with consumer researchers, they complained that the leaves were too red. (“It’s OK to have a little bit of red, like some leaf lettuces,” Reiner explained. “But people expect most of what they see in the bag to be green.”)

The second variety was more recognizable: a big, frilly, light green leaf that resembled the mustard greens I often buy — and then fail to eat — from the farmers’ market. That version was also extremely, almost inedibly, strong. Just nibbling the edge of a leaf cleared my sinuses like eating wasabi. “The compound that you’re tasting is called allyl isothiocyanate,” Reiner said as I dabbed at my watering eyes. “It’s not made until you chew it. The plant contains both the enzyme and the compound that converts it — but it holds them separate. When you chew, they combine to make something that tastes like horseradish. That’s why you have that little delay when you first bite into it, before it hits you.”

By comparison, the genetically edited version was delightful, if almost unrecognizable: mild to the point of sweetness, with a pleasant, springy texture. It also has the advantage of looking more like romaine lettuce, and with its larger size and greater frilliness, it does a better job, as Reiner puts it, of “filling up the plate.” It seemed like something that I would happily eat, and in the months after the tasting, as I slogged through my usual salads, I found myself looking forward to the day when I could buy Pairwise’s mustard greens. I liked the idea of getting all that extra nutrition — the vitamins, the fiber — without the punishing pungency. But I also found myself worrying. If I got used to eating greens that were genetically edited to be milder, would I lose my tolerance for funkier ones, like bitter rapini or peppery radishes? At what point would I not want to eat even the local greens from the farmers’ market?

After Baker’s talk at the Future Food conference, a member of the audience voiced the same concern: He was terrified, he said, by the prospect of using genetic engineering to “change what is natural just to meet people’s taste.” Rather than bending the natural world to our palates, shouldn’t we be adapting ourselves to the world? I put this question to Heather Hudson, who oversees Pairwise’s vegetable projects. Hudson smiled grimly. Modifying people’s taste, she said, is extremely difficult. An individual might manage it, by training her palate to appreciate, say, the slight bitterness of radicchio, but as a public health strategy it’s essentially hopeless. “I actually started out in nutrition, hoping to change how people ate,” Hudson went on. “But changing people’s behavior is hard.” There’s also a big difference between what we virtuously say we want and what we actually buy, let alone consume.

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