“Let the radiation do the work, while you reap the benefits.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek slogan of a new kit of tools designed to harvest commercially viable plants from nuclear disaster sites.
The Disaster Pharming kit arms “amateur bio-prospectors” with a Geiger counter to help avoid the highest levels of radiation, potassium iodide tablets for a little added protection, and tools for collecting mushrooms, algae, and plants that might have mutated into viable medicines or future foods.
It’s an art project–the kit is not for sale–but it’s not wholly fictional. In the 1950s, researchers started experimenting with radiation to mutate foods, some of which we’re still eating, like Ruby Red grapefruit.
“They had gamma gardens where plants were growing around a radioactive source, and then they would look around and say, ‘That one looks more red,’ and breed it more,” says Zack Denfeld, co-founder of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, an artist-led think tank.
In another project, the artists made a barbecue sauce filled with radiation-bred plants: Noam’s golden promise, a barley used in midcentury Scotch; two varieties of grapefruit; peppermint, which is now almost entirely grown from a mutated strain of the plant; and “Calrose 76” rice and soy.
There are more than 2,500 registered mutant crop varieties now. “Unlike GMOs, most people aren’t aware of them, and if they are, they aren’t freaking out about them,” says Denfeld. “We were looking at the historic hype and fear around novel biotechnologies, and making a sauce with it.”
The artists hope that the kit inspires new thought about where we want our food to come from. “It’s maybe hard to get people interested in the topic of agricultural biodiversity, but this could make people wonder, what is the value of biodiversity?” Denfeld says. “Do I really want these radiation-bred plants?”
It’s also a new way to look at the idea of bio-prospecting, which may not yet happen on disaster sites, but definitely happens in other environments as pharmaceutical companies race to find useful new plants. Think of the scientists rushing to discover and preserve genetic variations in a rainforest before it is clear cut.
The project also aims to start a different kind of conversation about nuclear power, especially after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. “If you just talk about nuclear power, it’s quite emotional for people, there’s a lot of baggage and assumptions. So coming at it from this really strange angle opens up new ways of talking about risk or energy or intellectual property that are sort of unexpected,” Denfeld says.
Will we ever start wandering around radiation zones hunting for strange mushrooms?
“I think basically the work is about opening a debate around risk, fear, and hype around technology and what humans do,” he explains. “And also helping people understand there’s very few truly wild ecosystems left. Maybe if you open your imagination, something like disaster pharming does become quite normative in 50 or 100 years, when every single inch of the planet is changed.”