Let’s Us Talk Lettuce

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

It’s perhaps not the most exciting vegetable in the world, but no healthy American would deny that lettuce (in all of its wonderful varieties) is a crucial component of American cuisine. Hard facts seem to back that up – in terms of production value, lettuce is one of America’s leading crops, with the value of exported lettuce coming in at a whopping $439.3 million in 2010, with 327,628 metric tons exported. That makes the U.S. the second largest producer of lettuce (behind China – we’re a distant second, but still) and the second largest exporter of lettuce (behind Spain). We’re pretty heavily invested for produce that some Americans might consider “the food their food eats!

On the other hand, the majority of our lettuce in grown in California – the Salinas Valley on the central California coast. specifically. 60% of our lettuce is grown there, and while its an agriculturally fertile region now, it’s susceptible to the effects of climate change and could see very real effects in the next hundred years. Last year was the hottest year on record. Lettuce requires a temperate climate to grow, but with spiking temperatures, lettuce has no choice but to adapt – either that, or we lose our most crucial salad vegetable forever.

Modern Farmer magazine has the story of Beiquan Mou, a research geneticist for the Department of Agriculture who’s currently stationed in El Centro, a small Southern California town just miles from the Mexican border where daily temperatures peak at over 100 degrees. Mou has been working on growing “superlettuce” – a federally funded (to the tune of $38 million) project testing the growth of all different types of lettuce in severe heat conditions, grouping varieties of lettuce by their tolerance to heat and taste, and growing mutant lettuce breeds (that may be less exciting than it sounds) that could be more durable in the more extreme weather conditions of the semi-near future.

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