How breeding seeds for flavor can create a more sustainable food system

By Karen Weisberg

Bringing his abiding passion and intelligence to bear upon his latest project, Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef/co-owner Dan Barber has teamed with other chefs and geneticists to launch Row 7, a seed breeding company. It’s poised to revolutionize how we think about what we eat.

Over the years Barber has received several James Beard Foundation awards including Outstanding Chef 2009. Currently, Row 7 seeds, bred for flavor, are only available through the company’s website. Barber recently shared his insights with NCR.

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Please tell us how more flavorful seeds “can change how we eat.” Will chefs across the country actually have access to produce grown from your seeds?

Seeds are really a blueprint for the whole food system — they determine what qualities an ingredient will bring to the table, and where it will thrive. The problem is that, in the past 50 years, they’ve largely been bred for a system of monocultures and mass distribution. Row 7 pairs chefs and plant breeders to develop new varieties that are co-selected in the field and kitchen. The end goal is a more delicious and sustainable food system. This year, Row 7 has been working to build a participatory network of chefs and farmers across the country. That trial community provides feedback on seeds still in development — including experiments from the chefs’ kitchens.

Do you expect chefs to modify recipes to highlight your more flavorful produce? Please share specific examples of how you have changed the recipe of a previous menu item.

It’s been amazing to see these ingredients interpreted through the lens of other chefs and cuisines. For me, they’ve been the driving force behind the Blue Hill menu for the past few years. Often, my instinct is to serve them in a way that highlights the ingredient itself. Take the 898 squash, a mini butternut that was developed by Michael Mazourek and co-selected over many years in the kitchen. We’re used to adding brown sugar or maple syrup to butternut squash to make it sing. But in this case, we serve it simply roasted with salt. It’s squash unplugged.

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898 squash

Given that restaurant margins are typically tight, approximately how much more costly will Row 7 seeds be and, in turn, the produce grown from these seeds?

I understand the tight margins for both farmers and chefs, but we also need to recognize the value of seeds — especially seeds produced organically in the US. Where and how seeds are grown matters! We want to make sure Row 7’s seeds are priced competitively and work for growers at scale, but we also recognize the need to invest and support the creation of organic seed infrastructure in the US. That goes all the way back to the breeding itself. A portion of all our seed sales goes back to supporting public plant breeding research.

We recognize the need to invest and support the creation of organic seed infrastructure in the US.

As the climate warms and rainfall increases — bringing increased soil erosion — are your seeds that are bred for “deliciousness” also expected to withstand increased temperatures and/or heat waves? 

Plant breeding is a process — a series of decisions that essentially amount to a kind of recipe. The question is: What are you prioritizing in that process? Traditionally, uniformity and shelf-life have been at the top of that list. Our hope is to bring other qualities — flavor, yes, but also ecological value — into the conversation. For us, climate change is a big part of that conversation. For instance, can we create a shorter-season winter squash that provides more flexibility for the grower in the face of unpredictable weather. That’s the kind of question we’re trying to pursue.

Why are all your seeds “unpatented?” Simply stated, why should this be important to the chef and/or guest?

This is about protecting a tradition of plant breeding that has gone on for thousands of years. Patented varieties cannot be saved for seed or used freely for research. Put simply, they inhibit the continued improvement and evolution of our food.

Part of the chef’s role, I think, is helping understand and promote the culinary value of these nutritionally significant compounds.

Your website says that ”when you select for flavor, you’re most likely selecting for nutrition, too.” Are you suggesting that the more flavorful produce packs more vitamins, minerals, lycopene, etc.? How is that nutrition information substantiated and how will it be conveyed to chefs/consumers?

People are just coming to understand the correspondence between flavor and nutrition. One key study demonstrated how the volatile compounds associated with tomato flavor all derive from essential nutrients. (These flavor and aroma compounds evolved as a way for us to tell what we should be eating.) But we need to complicate our understanding of flavor.

To the extent that plant breeders concern themselves with flavor today, they usually target sweetness — lowest-common-denominator flavors. Meanwhile, we now know that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter or sour taste. Part of the chef’s role, I think, is helping understand and promote the culinary value of these nutritionally significant compounds. That’s important to our breeding work; but we also want to define nutrition in terms of diets, not single ingredients. How can we create real change? By giving flavorful, nutritious and diverse ingredients more presence at the table.

Row 7 Seeds
Row 7 Seeds

“The Scale of Deliciousness — Flavor For All.” What’s your goal and timeline? Does “all” include a cross-section of socio-economic levels? Row 7 and its oblique reference to the Periodic Table (where the last and seventh row was left open for newly discovered elements to be added) may well be perceived as being available to “upscale only” venues; how can you/do you avoid that connotation?

We founded Row 7 with the hope of taking these ingredients beyond the cathedral of white tablecloth restaurants. But we’ve also seen the incredible power chefs have to set a precedent that becomes infused into the everyday food culture. I’m lucky to work alongside chefs who want to use that power to bring attention to this kind of work. And we’ve also established partnerships with fast casual chains and retailers in order to help scale that vision. Row 7 is just wrapping up a collaboration with Sweetgreen that saw the Koginut squash featured on menus in 90 locations across the country.

Where and how seeds are grown matters.

Why is Row 7 — and its experimental crops — based in New York State? Do cold winters play a part in the choice?

Our primary field trials are located in New York, where we are headquartered. But this participatory network of chefs and growers around the country and world allows us to trial experimental crops in different regions. Through their feedback, we can better predict where certain varieties will thrive and identify opportunities for future breeding work.

MarApr2019NCR_cover_loresTo read the full March/April 2019 issue of the National Culinary Reviewsubscribe to the print version today (now with included digital access).