When Dr. Michael Mazourek transitioned from focusing on the pharmaceutical side of human health into the field of plant breeding, he found the Northeast neglected by the seed industry. An area once home to a great amount of plant breeding projects had been largely abandoned as markets shifted to California and the seed companies underwent great consolidation in the 1990s. The few large remaining companies bred plants for major production regions first and only then did they see what might grow in “secondary markets” like the Northeast and parts of the Southeast, Mazourek says. Today, he is seeing the field beginning to shift again. Though there is a still a long way to go, small seed companies have begun popping up.
As an Associate Professor at Cornell University, Mazourek notices that students are increasingly taking an interest in plant breeding as well, with many focused on regional systems. On the west coast, for example, there has been a push for dry land farming as communities grapple with droughts. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, farmers and plant breeders face the opposite problems. “We need water removal,” he says with a laugh. He also finds that this new generation of plant breeders has responded to a need for more inclusion in the field with participatory approaches. Mazourek asks, “How [do] you invite people into a process that [has] been, and is still largely, done in a very isolated way?”
This concept of access is what led Mazourek to begin Row 7 Seed Company with chef Dan Barber and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb. A collaboration between chefs and plant breeders, Row 7 aims to develop organic, non-GMO, unpatented crops that are better for our palates, our soil, and our diets. By supporting plant breeders and getting their great varieties to the public, Mazourek hopes to help democratize the process of breeding and growing crops.
The ‘Upstate Abundance’ potato is just one successful example this collaboration generated. A high yielding and resilient crop, the potatoes produced were too small to sell in conventional markets. Chefs, however, enjoyed their creamy texture and nutty flavor. They were able to find uses for them and helped the variety rise to popularity. Mazourek explains that plant breeders may not always know how to prepare a new ingredient, but chefs have the knowledge and tools to bring out a variety’s best characteristics on the plate. He likens this process to the consultation of a cookbook. “This is the live and dynamic version,” he says.
Today, Mazourek and his program are focusing on legumes, drawn to their nitrogen fixing qualities and high protein content. Particularly exciting is the recently released, purple-podded Beauregarde Snow Pea. While anthocyanins help to protect crops in the fields, contain antioxidant effects, and impart a red, purple, or blue hue to plants, they are also often linked to bitterness. This compels most plant breeders to purge the quality altogether. Mazourek, however, wanted to use greater precision in his approach. He began with the native state of a pea plant and selected for the purple coloring while turning down the unappealing bitter quality. Able to transfer the color to the pods, he produced a pea that maintains its high nutritional value and is brilliant in both color and taste.
He looks forward to developing other legumes that can be grown in the Northeast, free of seed-borne diseases and appealing to diners. He hopes to show people accustomed to over seasoning their beans, believing they lack flavor on their own, that this does not have to be the case. Accomplishing this, Mazourek realizes, requires the involvement of more plant breeders and farmers. With their help, tastier more sustainable varieties can emerge in the market and reach the average consumer. Currently, the small quantities of Row 7 Seeds being sold and grown keeps the cost of seeds relatively high. With more participation, however, he believes it is possible to strike a balance where demand from a greater population makes seeds more affordable while still ensuring that the growers themselves are able to support their livelihoods.
Though much of his work started and is focused in the Northeast, Mazourek emphasizes engagement with other regions. On a trip to the Southeast several years ago, he learned about the particular techniques plant breeders in the area used. “I’m from New York. I’m a fish out of water down there in many ways, but I was trying to [ask] ‘What is the community we can build? There are things each of us know about in our region and if we did more sharing, then we all make better progress faster.” With so much to gain from local knowledge, he believes celebration of regional expertise is essential.