Out on the West Ashley corridor of Highway 17, just past the gaggle of fast food chain restaurants, lies a building where you're much more likely to hear the word "organic" used in a food-related context — the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory, a $20-million facility that spans over 400 acres and is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
This unassuming structure, or the labs that were scattered across the roadside prior to the brick behemoth's 2003 opening, served as the birthplace for a myriad of dinner-table staples. If you live in America and have eaten watermelon, sweet potatoes, collards, cantaloupe, cabbage, habañero peppers, or frozen peas in the past year, you've literally tasted the fruits — and vegetables — of the Vegetable Lab's labors.
Since the lab first opened in the 1930s, it has developed and released more than 160 improved varieties of vegetables and breeding lines, including the Charleston Gray and Crimson Sweet watermelons, the Charleston Belle bell pepper, and the Charleston Greenpack southernpea, which is now the leading southernpea cultivar (what a breeding line is called when it's officially named and released for mass production) being packed by frozen-food producers, according to a Dec. 2005 article in the ARS' Agricultural Research magazine.
"Our overall focus is twofold," says Alvin Simmons, an entomologist at the veggie lab. "First, to increase the quality and quantity of vegetable crops, and second, to work to understand the pests affecting vegetables."
Simmons is part of a group of scientists that includes biologists, plant pathologists, geneticists, entomologists, bacteriologists, and agronomists, plus a number of technicians and research associates, most of whom split their time at work among the field, the greenhouse, and the lab, all in the name of discovering ways for farmers to produce better produce.
"We have a long history of breeding crops," Simmons says. "We're constantly developing material resistant to insects and disease. Many growers now are trying to use an integrated management approach instead of just relying on pesticides."
Simmons and his team have spent the better part of a decade constructing a linkage map of the watermelon's genes, targeting pests such as root-knot nematodes, whiteflies, and spider mites, all of which can strongly effect the melon's short harvest season.
Although many people, when they hear "vegetable lab," probably think of "frankenfoods" — modified versions of popular vegetables containing genes spliced from dissimilar or unrelated species — the scientists at the USVL still develop plants the old-fashioned way, through isolation of desired properties in certain lines of veggies and meticulous trial-and-error crossbreeding for those desired properties.
While the technology has advanced at a whirlwind pace (research associate Anna Hale demonstrated how a computerized gene sequencer works in mere seconds to show the genetic properties of a batch of different breeds of broccoli), the basic ideas behind the selective breeding being done at the Vegetable Lab are the same as those introduced by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century.
Currently, one of the more interesting nonfood studies at the lab is one that focuses on the anticancer potential of broccoli. USVL geneticist Mark Farnham, working with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, found that the seed of the oft-maligned vegetable and bane of children everywhere contains about 10 times more glucoraphanin (a compound associated with broccoli's cancer-inhibiting abilities) than the plant itself, and he is currently working with the private sector to test a self-pollinating line of high-glucoraphanin broccoli that could, one day, be used for pharmaceutical purposes.
So while there aren't giant stalks of celery prowling the hallways or 50-pound tomaccolis sprouting in the greenhouses, there are new discoveries made every day at our U.S. Vegetable Lab that will, one day, change your life — and, possibly, your life expectancy.