Running on Fumes: Strawberry’s Dirty Secret

This episode, we tell an age-old tale: an innocent young berry heads west to make its fame and fortune—but sells its soul in the process. In order for our hero, the strawberry, to defeat its nemesis, a fungus called wilt, the aromatic red fruit makes a deal with the devil—and duly becomes America's favorite berry. But its success relies on fumigants, toxic gases injected into the soil that kill everything in their path. So what are fumigants; what's their effect on farm workers, local communities, and the environment; and can the strawberry break free of their poisonous grip? Listen in this episode to find out!

Unlike many of our favorite fruits and vegetables, we know exactly where and when the cultivated strawberry that we buy in our grocery stores and farmer's markets was born: 300 years ago in a greenhouse in Versailles, France. Scientist Patrick Edger, whom Gastropod listeners will remember from our Cutting the Mustard episode, and whose recent work includes a collaborative project to assemble the strawberry genome, told us the tiny North American strawberry Fragaria virginiana accidentally crossbred with strawberries collected from Chile, Fragaria chiloensis, in the French greenhouse—"and then, all of a sudden, they saw this massive strawberry emerge," said Edger. "And that really transformed the strawberry industry."

The next big transformation occurred when the strawberry moved West. Social scientist Julie Guthman's new book, Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry, tells the little-known story of how the strawberry overcame all obstacles to become an everyday treat all around the U.S.—thanks to lucky breeding, smart marketing, and some left-over tear gas from World War I. But today, with one of the primary soil fumigants that strawberry farmers previously relied on banned, and with increasing pressure from farm-worker groups, local communities, and consumers, can strawberries clean up their act? With the help of Steven Knapp, who directs the strawberry breeding program at the University of California, Davis, Dan Nelson, who is growing baby strawberry plants without fumigants at Innovative Organic Nursery, and Matt Celona, who manages to grow Cynthia's favorite strawberries without any inputs whatsoever at Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm, we explore whether the strawberry can quit fumigants and become even tastier in the process. Listen in now for the surprising story of strawberry's dirty secrets and bright future.

Episode Notes

Matt Celona and Drumlin Farm

Matt Celona is head farmer at Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, where he grows some of Cynthia's favorite strawberries.

Patrick Edger

Patrick Edger is assistant professor in the department of horticulture at Michigan State University, where his research focuses on polyploid plant genomics. He recently co-authored a ground-breaking paper on the evolution and origin of the octoploid strawberry genome with Steve Knapp.

Steven Knapp

Steven Knapp is director of the strawberry breeding program at UC Davis, which just released five new varieties for growers. When he isn't eating his strawberries fresh, he's whipping up this Strawberry, Marscarpone, and Budini recipe.

Julie Guthman

Julie Guthman is a professor of social sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry.

Dan Nelson and Innovative Organic Nursery

Dan Nelson is co-founder and co-manager of Innovative Organic Nursery, the only nursery supplying baby strawberry plants raised without fumigants to independent growers.