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 sulphur 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 an South Carolina, 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.”
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 more advanced technology of genetic modification. Neither Monsanto nor Bjorkman says they have any plans to pursue that method in developing better broccoli. NYT