How Do Farmers Make Seedless Fruit?


If i swallow a watermelon seed a new watermelon
will grow in my stomach, right? Everyone knows that! Good thing we have seedless watermelons!
Wait … if there’s no seeds, how do we make more of them? These days, you see WAY more seedless fruits
than seeded. Seedless grapes, watermelons, oranges, come to mind, but natural bananas
have seeds, so do cucumbers! Fruit is, by nature, a matured ovary around a seed, the
flesh of a watermelon or apple is part of that ovary! So if it’s not “natural,” then
what is seedless fruit? Seedless plants have been around for millennia.
Some strains of grapes were documented in ancient Roman times that didn’t produce seeds.
And in 1872, seedless navel oranges were brought to the US from Brazil. They were sourced from
a “clump of freak orange trees” according to a New York Times article from 1902 and
thanks to American farmers grow everywhere today. FYI: seedless fruits are not genetically
modified — no one is tweaking their DNA to add or remove genes; instead, they’re selecting
traits and breeding them naturally. In botany, breeding seedless fruit is called
parthenocarpy. Parthenocarpic fruit can occur naturally due to mutations or problems with
sperm and egg fertilization or through specific hybrid breeding — mixing plants with more
or fewer chromosomes to get a sterile offspring. For example, bananas have an extra set of
chromosomes, called triploid — it’s sort of like the fruit version of a mule — it’s
sterile. Seedless plants are cultivated by farmers
because consumers buy for convenience! Nothing is more inconvenient than a seeded grape,
amirite? The National Watermelon Promotion Board says only 16 percent of watermelons
sold have seeds! But if the seed of a plant is how that plant reproduces, how do we perpetuate
a seedless plant? There’s no SEED TO PLANT! But farmers know the answer to this one … through
grafting. Farmers and agribusinesses spend lots of capital
to produce what they believe is the best fruit for modern life. Watermelon with thick rinds
survive shipping and no seeds sell better; so why let nature mess those perks up by allowing
them to naturally breed? Instead, they’ll reproduce that seedless plant variety. This
is has been done since antiquity. If a branch is sliced from a seedless tree
it could (eventually) grow a whole new seedless plant. To increase the chances, farmers today
use “rooting hormone;” a broad term for an antibacterial agent which can be made at home
from willow bark, honey, or a chemical called auxin — which is naturally produced by plant
roots! In fact, most of the fruit we eat in the U.S. today comes from cuttings; because
it’s an easy way to propagate a single high-yield fruit tree into an orchard of high-yield trees
— especially when they don’t have seeds to grow their own offspring. Farmers can also
graft cuttings onto existing trees — making it possible to have say an orange and lemon
growing on the same plant; again propagating without seeds. There is an issue with this though, maybe
you’ve spotted it, if farmers plant whole orchards of seedless, high-yield trees based
on the cuttings of an original tree they destroy biodiversity. All the trees are clones of
that original seedless mutant! If a disease strikes the plant, like in the case of the
banana in the 1970s, or the cacao problems in South America. Seedless plants are so genetically
similar, they’re often struck by the same diseases — making it spread quickly. Biodiversity
is what keeps lineages of plants alive when drought, blight, or disease strikes; some
varieties die, but the species survives. Seeds help propagate biodiversity and as an added
bonus they’re often super nutritious! Heirloom plants may not look like fruits in
the ads; they have a variety of colors, sizes and shapes; but some stand up better to disease
and some don’t; some have BETTER flavors, and some don’t. As a consumer, we have to
use our best judgment, and buy not for the sake of seed, but for what we really want in our foods.

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