The ‘atomic gardening fad’ was part of the ‘Atoms For Peace‘ program – it occurred during the late 50s to the mid-60s. Citizen gardeners, were encouraged to compete with one another in the field of radiation-induced mutagenesis – using irradiated seeds for plants and crops in order to mutate the offspring to make them bigger, more colorful, more resistant to disease and parasites, or to enhance fitness in stressful environmental conditions, such as drought, frost, or poor soils.
In 1960 dentist-turned-entrepreneur, Clarence J. Speas, founded Oak Ridge Atom Industries, Inc. to sell ‘atomic’ products. Speas, via Oak Ridge, became a major player in the citizen ‘atomic gardening fad’ – to encourage interest, Oak Ridge sponsored a contest for the ‘most unusual plant’ with a prize of $3,000 and agreed to ‘purchase or pay royalties on new varieties deemed to have commercial value.’
This atomic age fad has pretty much faded from history and is usually only referred to in relation to contemporary arguments that surround the use of GMOs by major corporate players like Monsanto. Supporters for the use of GMOs argue that genetic modification of plants and crops is a part of agricultural history for thousands of years – the ‘atomic garden fad’ is an example of how state, corporate, and citizen cooperation can go a long way in viable research through understanding and acceptance of this fact. Those more suspicious of corporate GMO research and implementation of genetically modified plants and crops point out that the ‘atomic garden fad’ was a rare moment of open and shared information between science and the citizen – today’s genetic-modification programs are sheltered from discussion by copyright claims and intellectual property privacy.
Nanotechnology researcher and gardening enthusiast, Paige Johnson, hopes to shed some new light on this mid-century fad. From her research so far she notes that very little information is available about the results related to the citizen gardening. It’s possible that the government may have some research data but it is not easily found. An interesting 2011 interview is posted at the Pruned website here.
It’s interesting to note that while the atomic backyard gardening fad pretty much faded from public attention in the mid-60s, no one is quite sure how many irradiated seeds are still in circulation, or if and how many smaller crops are offspring from generations of genetically modified parents. Also, large scale radiation breeding never actually stopped and is now experiencing a renaissance due to the introduction of ‘new methods that speed up the identification of mutants.’ Below is a photo of the world’s largest ‘gamma garden’ located in Hitachiohmiya, Japan. It has an ‘88.8 Terabecquerel Cobalt-60 source, ringed by a 3,608-foot radius Gamma field, and a 28-foot high shield dike around the perimeter.’