GENEVA, N.Y. — There it sits, a deep-green beauty at the farmers’ market: that sweet, crisp nutritional dynamo we know as fresh local broccoli.
And then there’s this: a bitter, rubbery mass that’s starting to turn yellow around the tips, all bumped and bruised from its long trip from the field to the supermarket.
Thomas Bjorkman, a plant scientist at Cornell University, examined the store-bought specimen like a diagnostician, unflinchingly but with a certain compassion.
“It’s soft, almost limp,” he said, prodding one of the heads. “That sharp smell is from the sulfur compounds. Scale of 10, with 10 being broccoli picked the same day you eat it? I’d give this a 2, maybe a 3.”
For all the wonders of fresh broccoli, in most parts of the country it is available from local growers only during the cooler weeks at either end of the growing season, nowhere near long enough to become a fixture in grocery stores or kitchens.
Broccoli hates too much heat, which is why 90 percent of it sold in the United States comes from temperate California, which is often bathed by fog. The heads are fine if you live there, but for the rest of us they require a long truck ride (four or five days to the East Coast) and then some waiting time in a warehouse, tarnishing the appeal of a vegetable that health experts can’t praise enough.
But Bjorkman and a team of fellow researchers are out to change all that. They’ve created a new version of the plant that can thrive in hot, steamy summers like those in New York, South Carolina or Iowa, and that is easy and inexpensive enough to grow in large volumes.
And they didn’t stop there: This crucifer is also crisp, subtly sweet and utterly tender when eaten fresh-picked, which could lift the pedestrian broccoli into the ranks of the vegetable elite. Think Asian-style salads of shaved stems, Bjorkman suggests, or an ultra-crisp tempura with broccoli that doesn’t need parboiling.
“If you’ve had really fresh broccoli, you know it’s an entirely different thing,” he said. “And if the health-policy goal is to vastly increase the consumption of broccoli, then we need a ready supply, at an attractive price.”
Redoing the produce aisle
The new broccoli is part of a mad dash by Cornell scientists to remake much of the produce aisle. The goal is to help shift American attitudes toward fruits and vegetables by increasing their allure and usefulness in cooking, while maintaining or even increasing their nutritional loads. In recent months, the Cornell lab has turned out a full-flavored habanero pepper without the burning heat, snap peas without the pesky strings, and luscious apples that won’t brown when sliced — a huge boon to school cafeteria matrons plagued by piles of fruit that students won’t eat unless it is cut up.
The Eastern Broccoli Project, based at the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station here in this small Finger Lakes city, also aims to maximize the new broccoli’s concentration of glucoraphanin, a compound that has been found to aid in preventing cancer.
In this crusade, Bjorkman, 50, is a hybrid of Mr. Wizard and the Mr. Smith who went to Washington. While developing the new plants, he has lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to include money for vegetable research in the new farm bill. He has reached out to farmers, grocers and economists to ensure the new broccoli finds a mass market, first in the East, then in other parts of the country.
Two years of successful trials involving the largest seed companies have made the hot-weather broccoli plants ready for farming, though it may be several more years before East Coast grocers start selling the local florets.
But while Bjorkman is a passionate agrarian and vegetarian, his Perfect Broccoli may challenge a purist view of food. Critics are generally fine with his science, which involves fairly traditional forms of biotechnology, like using petri dishes to mate broccoli with radishes and other plants that would never hook up on their own, and selecting genes through this breeding that can minimize production costs and maximize consumer appeal.
Rather, they cringe at his collaboration with large seed companies like Monsanto, whose biotechnology lineup includes squash and sweet corn developed with the far more advanced technology of genetic modification. Neither Monsanto nor Bjorkman says they have any plans to pursue that method in developing better broccoli.
“But it’s another example of Monsanto’s control of the food supply,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Food Politics.” “And that is a huge and legitimate question: Should one corporation have that level of control over things people depend on?”
Monsanto was first out of the gate with a heat-loving broccoli. It joined Bjorkman’s planting trials to test some of its varieties for heat tolerance and is now selling these seeds to farmers in Georgia. The company said it was aware of the concerns about consolidation in the industry and was striving to make its seeds available to small farmers and gardeners — an effort that Bjorkman embraces.
“To be effective, we have to work with the consolidated seed industry,” Bjorkman said. “But not exclusively. We want to make this as widely available as possible.” (Some of the project’s seeds are already being sold by seed distributors.)
His team realizes that a big part of its job is bringing together the clashing worlds of Big Food and Simple Eating.
“Foodies, I don’t think they all understand there is nothing natural about farming, starting with tearing up the soil,” said Mark Farnham, a federal research geneticist in Charleston, S.C., who joined Bjorkman in starting the broccoli project. “Thomas has the ability to help people understand the connection of science and food, and the fact that we don’t reach a pinnacle and stop and say everything is good.”
Gangly and soft-spoken, Bjorkman is an odd frontman for tinkering with produce. He largely abstains from eating processed foods, preferring to cook from scratch. And as his wife, Ann Raffetto, a local winemaker, pointed out, he doesn’t just pause when fielding thorny questions. Like the earliest computers, he stops for a full seven seconds; you can almost hear him whirring away.
“It can be disconcerting,” she said. “But he’s pulling out the answers from many different parts of his brain, and pretty coherently so.”
His affinity for plants has the deepest of roots, in his native Sweden. His mother, Monika, recalls sending him out of their summer cottage alone at age 3 to play; he would come back with fistfuls of the country’s entire taxonomy of flowers, learning their names and habits.
“First the yellows, then the whites, and on and on,” she said over the phone from Palo Alto, Calif.
He took a more pragmatic approach to science than his father, Olle, who is renowned for his work on photosynthesis. At the University of California, Davis, Thomas Bjorkman met with farmers, to help match his research with their real-world needs.
Knowing that smart retailing is essential to success, Bjorkman designed the broccoli project to include all aspects of its growing and marketing, which helped him secure a $3.2 million grant from the Department of Agriculture in 2010, along with $1.7 million worth of contributions from commercial partners, including the produce-centric Wegmans grocery chain. (A major goal is persuading grocers to promote the broccoli as locally grown and to move it quickly through their warehouses and stores.) He even asked a local chef, Jack Woolfrey, to create recipes to show off the new broccoli’s advantages in cooking.
Bjorkman’s expertise in plant physiology helped solve a key riddle: California has hot days, too, in the summer, so why would South Carolina be such a problem for broccoli?
“It’s the nights here in the East,” he said. “They’re so much warmer than those in California. And I found that the broccoli plant seems to be counting the hours.” Eight or 10 hours of heat is fine. But 24 hours above the mid-60s and the plants decide it would be suicide to flower. No flowering, no broccoli florets. The farmer ends up with a bunch of leaves.
(Another useful thing to know: Even after broccoli’s flowering heads are cut for eating, they breathe like crazy, their mitochondria pumping 10 times as fast as those of carrots, and the heat this generates speeds their decay, especially when they are displayed in big piles. This panting also explains why broccoli will dry out in a refrigerator unless wrapped loosely in plastic.)
Eastern farmers may not reap as many pounds per acre as those in California, but they can make up for that gap (and not have to charge more) by avoiding big trucking costs, which Bjorkman counts as another plus for his broccoli: every new acre planted in the East will mean consuming less diesel fuel, generating less greenhouse gases.
Next up for his team is the shopper. Focus groups are planned for this summer in which 150 or more people will be handed the typical California and the novel Eastern broccoli for comparative eyeing and tasting. In a twist conceived by the Cornell marketing expert Miguel Gómez, they’ll be asked to bid on the broccoli, using their own cash.
Will shoppers put their money on fresh and local?
“We don’t want to be guessing,” Bjorkman said of his marketing plans. “We want to know just how much they are willing to pay.”
A new seed promises to flower in more climates, improving freshness and taste for many while being inexpensive enough to grow in large quantities.