Following the dim reality post World War II, Atoms for Peace aimed to look for different alternatives to the use of fission energy in the 1950s. Out of that search came to fruition a practice called Atomic Gardening. Also named “gamma gardens,” the plan was to understand and explore the effects radiation had on botanical species and then try to create useful mutations out of it.
These gardens were arranged in concentric circles with the idea that as the plant would move further out of the circle, it would absorb a different amount of radiation, and that would lead to a single type of species giving varying degrees of results.
The innermost species of plants would absorb the most radiation from radioactive elements. Normally, cobalt-60 was used for atomic gardening.
While those present in the dead center would normally die from the radiation, those further at the back would exhibit mutations that weren’t visible to the human eye since their DNA would change and mutate.
Most of the time, the mutations would kill or make the plant sterile, but in some cases, they would create beneficial traits in them.
The theory behind exposing plants to radiation was that plants would normally be exposed to the Earth’s radiation and, through decades, would mutate naturally. Exposing them to radiation artificially was meant to speed up this process to see if it could bore positive results.
Around the world, atomic gardens started to appear, from the USA to Europe, Japan, and India. The Atomic Gardening Society (AGS), established in 1959 by British nuclear activist Muriel Howorth, had its main objective to persuade common people to incorporate the atomic idea into their own gardening.
Irradiated seeds would be given to these AGS members, who would be requested to cultivate these seeds at their homes and share the results. There were many examples of success. One such tale is that of Howorth, who managed to grow a peanut plant that was 2 feet (0.6 meters) tall and produced unusually large nuts.
According to a 1959 article in The Dispatch, these peanut seeds were exposed to radiation 17 times the level required to kill a person, resulting in the radioactive peanut plant. The mutations that gave it its advantageous characteristics “would take nature thousands of years to [produce]” It was completed quickly using radiation.
Regarding atomic produce, there’s a good chance you’ve tried some. According to Neo Life, the Golden Promise barley is thought to have been the inspiration for any whiskey that is between 35 and 40 years old today. The Red Rio Grapefruit, known for its redder-than-red flesh, was created by atomic gardening.
Although some of the mutations helped enhance the fruit’s taste, others improved the plant’s health. When sickness would have otherwise wiped them out, a virus-resistant mutant of a particular species of cacao tree developed in Ghana using irradiation came to their rescue.
Putting nuclear energy’s “bright side” on display? The scientific community shunned the method because of the random way the mutations appeared, and as public worry about radiation and cancer mounted, atomic vegetables eventually fell out of favor everywhere.
Even if you may still buy products from the Atomic Garden period, today’s gene-edited crops are produced utilizing other technologies like CRISPR.
Modern-day technology allows us to cultivate genetically modified foods (GMO foods), such as the antioxidant-rich purple tomato, a “superfood” with components found in blueberries.
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