Pruned talks to Paige Johnson about the strange story of atomic gardening, a post-war phenomenon in which plants were irradiated in the hopes of producing beneficial mutations. It’s a largely forgotten, surreal slice of 1950s culture, with housewives hosting atomic peanut dinner parties and attending Radioactivity Jubilees:
After WWII, there was a concerted effort to find ‘peaceful’ uses for atomic energy. One of the ideas was to bombard plants with radiation and produce lots of mutations, some of which, it was hoped, would lead to plants that bore more heavily or were disease or cold-resistant or just had unusual colors. The experiments were mostly conducted in giant gamma gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US but also in Europe and countries of the former USSR.
These efforts utimately reached far into the world outside the laboratory grounds in several ways: in plant varieties based on mutated stocks that were—and still are—grown commercially, in irradiated seeds that were sold to the public by atomic entrepreneur C.J. Speas during the 50s and 60s and through the Atomic Gardening Society, started in England by Muriel Howorth to promote the mutated varieties.
If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer. Amidst all the debate over altered crops, surely evaluating the legacy of the atomic gardens could be useful.
It’s easy to look back at it all as some crazy, or conspiratorial, plot. But the atomic gardens weren’t a secret. They’ve just been forgotten. And it’s clear from reading the primary sources that most people involved were deeply sincere. They really thought their efforts would eradicate hunger, end famine, prevent another war.