Veggie Tech: Building the better lettuce

Earlier this week, I scooted down to the Baltimore Convention Center, to catch Steven Britz's talk on how he's using ultraviolet rays to grow nutrient-rich lettuce.

Britz, a research plant physiologist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, was one of many presenters at the Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics/International Quantum Electronics Conference (CLEO/IQEC). (See the photo below)


Britz talked about things like flavonoids ... and ultraviolet A and B ... and polyphenolic compounds .... and phenolic acid esters ... and the "complicated geometry" of lettuce, which is "hardly a flat surface." (At this point, I started wondering why I took all those English and writing classes in college, and only one bio course. Ack.)

Such veggie geometry -- unruly lettuce leaves everywhere, I suppose -- poses a challenge when you're trying to beam ultraviolet rays at it to help the lettuce turn redder and healthier.

Britz flashed photos of red leaf lettuce heads (the Lolla Rossa you see above), showing before-and-after shots of what they looked like in experiments where an ultraviolet light was focused on them for 48 hours. Notice how red the one on the right is -- that one got a dose of ultraviolet-B for 48 hours. The lettuce looked better, it tasted better -- and gosh darn it, people liked it!

He talked about how in the future, we might see large farm operations using UV rays to help boost the freshness of lettuce before it gets shipped across country. We might even see UV-emitting LEDs built into our refrigerators, to help sustain freshness and nutrients in fruits and veggies.

His vision, half-joking: "A chicken in every pot and an LED in every refrigerator." I caught up with Britz by phone in a followup interview and he patiently explained what he was doing with UV and lettuce.

In Britz's experiments, the UV helped boost the antioxidant levels in the lettuce he experimented with. (His preferred lettuce, by the way, is "Galactic," a lush red-leafed variety.)

But scientists don't really have a complete handle on the benefits of antioxidants, though they are thought to do all sorts of beneficial things for your body, like help heal the brain and reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Britz said that after he gave his talk, he spoke with a couple of manufacturers at the conference who talked about the possibility of mounting rolling UV-emitting LEDs on tracks, in a greenhouse environment. But to gain traction, they would have to identify growers who would be willing to help test and experiment with the new equipment in a real-world production setting, he said.

"Nobody's going to go out and buy this thing unless it's cost-effective and shown to work," he told me.

That makes sense. I asked him if he'd ever been criticized and accused of manipulating nature, and he said he's actually gotten support from fans of organic and slow food. He said his work doesn't involve genetic manipulation.

Rather, he's using the plant's own response system to enrich it, to accomplish what "it would do all on its own if exposed to sunlight in a natural way."

"We're not making a different plant," Britz said. "We're helping the plant."