Letter: Remembering the Taste of Summer

Tonight was one of those summer meals that nourishes the soul at least as much as the body. My wife and I made our Saturday pilgrimage to the downtown farmers' market, scooping up tomatoes, squash, cabbage, fresh eggs, and more. And there, on our loveliest paper plates tonight, was fried squash, spicy cabbage, cornbread, slices of Cherokee red tomatoes, and a wonderful three pepper bratwurst from one of our favorite vendors at the market, who promises my wife he never names his pigs, cows and chickens (which would keep her from eating them). But this musing isn't about that. This is about genetically modified produce. So feel free to skip right over this and go looking for funny cat videos.

From what I read, the jury is still out on the long-term health concerns of ingesting corn, for instance, that has an added enzyme that will explode the stomachs of pests feeding on it, or soybeans that have been drenched in weed killer, surviving because of their clever modifications making them resistant. Nutritionally, I would imagine GMO foods to be similar to their more naturally occurring cousins. These seem to be the points debated most frequently when I see stories about pros and cons of GMOs. I'm not going there, though.

I have two basic reasons I try my best to steer clear of these laboratory created 'maters and such. The first, and I could write for hours about this point (but I won't), is this word; biodiversity. It means a lot of things, but at the most basic level, it scares the hell out of me to think of field after field, acre after acre, mile after mile, of genetically identical crops. It sounds fantastic, and for a while it just might be, that you can plant this little seed that has been altered to withstand drought, or wet, or beetles, or worms, or a fungus, or wind, and produce a long, tall, full stalk of corn. But the other side of the coin is also true. If every single ear of corn is identical genetically, then every single ear of corn is susceptible to exactly the same new pest/weather event/climate/fungus, etc... In a true biologically diverse ecosystem of plants, some will be "born" with resistance to some things, some resistant to other things, some will thrive in certain conditions, others will thrive in other conditions. But never would an entire crop be devastated by something unforeseen, because the seeds that have been allowed to become plants and then reproduce over and over again for centuries have all the defenses necessary to make it to next year. A lack of biodiversity means an entire crop can be silenced by one new enemy for which scientists hadn't planned. On a global scale, that could be the kind of disaster about which Stephen King could craft a best-seller.

The other reason, though, is even more important. And it was tonight's meal that got me thinking about it. As I cut a section of that beautiful Cherokee red tomato and laid it on my tongue, that flavor, that taste of summer, that memory of my great-grandmother's garden in Johnson City, the memory of Mom and Dad's gardens on Tazewell Pike or Jacksboro Pike (they like living on Pikes, I guess), that acidy, sweet, tartness that screams TOMATO at you, I was again reminded that real food, real naturally grown heirloom or landrace produce tastes better! In our quest as Americans to have any food we like any time of year and as cheap as possible, we have forgotten what food tastes like. So let's don't do it. Let's not retrain our taste buds to accept flat, unexciting, non-tasting vegetables. Do yourself a favor (or flavor) and grow yourself a tomato, or spend money on one at a market, or stop by Dad's and let him give you a few, then slice it up and remember what summer tastes like.

Tonight was a meal that nourished my soul more than my body. I don't know how healthy it was, but it was damn delicious.

Mark Honeycutt