Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Food & Drink

The Secret Ways Scientists Are Altering Your Vegetables

Updated On 01/24/2018 at 06:22PM EST
A ll hail the Sunion, a sweet onion newly arriving at supermarkets in 2018 bearing an almost unfathomable promise: No matter how finely you chop it, no matter how stale the air is in your kitchen, no matter what names it calls you (kidding), it will never make you cry.
You might think, in these crazy days of seedless tomatoes and plant-based burgers that bleed, that this modern marvel was devised by a bunch of punning scientists high on the fumes of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. But it's actually the three-decade culmination of one farmer named Rick Watson's struggle to inoculate America's favorite bulb with the "no more tears" concept through crossbreeding, that ancient tradition of manipulating crops to suit our own preferences.
That Sunions are perfectly timed to capitalize on our culture's general need for speed, as well as our aversion to tearing up in the kitchen, isn't a coincidence. "There are, of course, trends in produce," says Adam Brady, senior marketing manager at Golden Sun Marketing, working with Sunions. "And right now the trend is to make produce more convenient for preparation." He points to the growing $5-billion-a-year industry, led by Blue Apron, that's built up around delivering prepared groceries right to consumers' doors and expected to surpass $10 billion by 2020. "It takes that fear of tearing out of the equation when you're talking about prepping meals," says Brady, "It's one less thing that consumers have to think about."
The earliest kind of genetic manipulation was done by selective breeding: picking out the favorable traits and weeding out the undesired ones intentionally. Farmers aim to give foods certain qualities (or take them away) and do so by controlling how the crop cross breeds. Think back to your middle school biology class: This is exactly what Gregor Mendel did with his pea pod experiments, just on a much larger, more sophisticated scale.
In 2018, the inherently slow process of crossbreeding may seem as quaint as Web 1.0. New technology has helped speed up the process; adjustments that might have taken 30 years in the field in the past can now be made almost instantly on a single machine in a lab. Just watch how you label it. "It's really important you know this isn't a GMO," Mallory Johnson, president of bigInk PR, says about the Sunion, referring to genetically modified organisms.
The problem: There's still no standardization in place to alert consumers to which of the produce in a grocery store has been genetically manipulated, much less how.
When you're standing in front of, say, a neat pyramid of tomatoes, you're missing some crucial insight into how that produce came to be. The results of the different ways to manipulate a crop (crossbreeding, GMOs, and a third category of gene-edited crops) look the same, but there's no transparency about how those tomatoes -- or mushrooms, or onions, or whatever -- you buy in the supermarket have been grown, nor is there clear regulation of the science that goes into making this produce, which has been a controversial issue since GMOs were first commercially introduced in the 1970s. None of it is unsafe, necessarily, but don't we deserve to know how food we'd otherwise presume weren't subjects of science was made regardless?
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
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