“Thanks for this interview. Our readers are very interested in all things organic.” Janet glanced down the gleaming-white corridor. She knew that the word ‘organic’ conjured up a very different picture in the minds of the subscribers to Renewable World.
“Our methods are impeccable – we recycle the majority of our water, our solar panels actually feed excess energy into the national grid, and in the past we used natural biological controls on pests.” Dr Bryan smiled. “Ladybirds. Ideal for removing aphids. But since we really locked down on physical interfaces, very little has been getting in or out. We aim for only two organisms in this entire complex. Humans and tomatoes.”
“Where the outside world meets the world of TomTech. The goal is an entirely sealed environment – apart from shipping out product, of course. In the future, it could potentially have applications for colonising other planets.”
The facility already resembled another world, Janet thought. A vast, glass-roofed world which sat like a spaceship on the drab, empty fields around it.
“We also operate as a biodiversity bank. Did you know that there are over seven thousand varieties of tomato? We have specimens of over three-quarters of those, and the entire world market will be supplied from facilities like us within the next decade. If you’ve eaten a tomato in this country, it probably came from us.”
Dr Bryan halted outside a large set of double doors.
“Welcome to the nursery.”
The room was tropically still, with soft, moist air that settled around Janet like a shawl. Rows and rows of tiny seedlings, two eager, precious leaves apiece, were arranged in racks which stretched into the distance from floor to ceiling.
“These all come from from a single mother plant. Growing from seed is inefficient, and once we’ve developed the ideal specimen, we want to replicate her perfectly.”
“These plants are clones?”
“We prefer not to use that word.” He glanced at her Dictaphone. “If you took a cutting from a rosebush and put it in your garden, you wouldn’t say you’d cloned it, would you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
The tiny, baby plants were strangely appealing. They were so uniform, so precise, each with exactly the same height and leaf placement. They looked like a row of toys, and Janet had an impulse to stroke one. Dr Bryan seemed to anticipate her, and said, “Please don’t touch the seedlings. They are very fragile.”
“Sorry. They’re just – ”
He laughed. “There’s something about the nursery. The technicians used to love working here.”
Dr Bryan paused. “We are trying to minimise human contact with the plants as far as possible. To create a more natural environment. Let’s go through to the growing room.”
Natural could hardly describe the next room. The seedlings were replaced by high, leggy plants, each clipped to a slender aluminium pole, their roots twisting through clear gel.
“Here the plants achieve their adult height. There is a balance to be found between optimal size to support maximum fruiting, and wasting the plant’s energy creating inedible matter.”
“How long does that take?”
“Two weeks. After that, they are moved to the fruitarium.”
It seemed impossible that fourteen days would be sufficient to turn the seedlings into these lanky adolescents.
“Under the right conditions, there is nothing to prevent rapid growth. We have developed the perfect atmosphere to facilitate this.”
“Do you play them Mozart?” Janet knew the joke was weak, but was surprised at the shortness of Dr Bryan’s reply.
“No. It’s a myth that plants respond to music.”
“Sorry.” There was something about the growing room that was making her head swim. It was entirely different from the soft warmth of the nursery; instead the air felt sharp and metallic.
“By atmosphere, I was referring to a precise balance of gases, including of course, a high concentration of CO2.”
“Let’s move through to the fruitarium. People can find this zone leaves them a little short of breath.”
If the nursery had been a tropical glade, the fruitiarium was a jungle. Each plant, still stapled to its aluminium strut, was now an explosion of red. The fruit hung so heavily that Janet imagined that she could hear the plants sighing and creaking as they attempted to stay upright.
“The lights are kept on round-the-clock to give the fruit maximum ripening energy. This facility has entirely superseded the tyranny of a twelve-month season. We can bring a plant from cutting to fruiting to retirement – a process which would otherwise take a year – in less than two months.”
There was something overwhelming about the rampant fecundity around her. It seemed almost cruel somehow – the plants being forced to yield up their fruit so desperately, so helplessly, like battery chickens or dairy cows groaning with milk. She dismissed the thought. Plants could not suffer.
“Once they’ve been harvested, are they returned to the fruitarium?”
“No. Tomatoes are monocarpic annuals – they fruit only once in their lives.”
“What happens to them after that?”
Dr Bryan had flinched slightly at the word ‘harvested’. “We shouldn’t discuss that here,” he said in a low voice. “Let’s go through to the Outlet, where it’s quieter.”
Aside from the gentle rustle of leaves, the growing room was almost silent. But Janet followed Dr Bryan down another pristine corridor to a display room, where barrels of tomatoes had been arranged in jolly profusion. The effect was of an old-fashioned farmers’ market, but with endless, identical tomatoes in place of any other produce.
“And as you can see, this is the end of the process.” His voice returned to normal. “Over eighty tonnes a week from this one facility.”
“You mentioned that plants are retired. What’s that?”
“A standard process of reclaiming useful minerals.”
“Well…once the fruit has been harvested, the adult plants are mulched and used as fertiliser for the next generation.”
“What about the actual process of harvesting? Can I see that in action?”
“There are health and safety issues. You would require protective clothing, specially designed for our workers. Otherwise you might be at risk, even after you’d left here.” His eyes were guarded.
“At risk of what? Dr Bryan?” she prompted.
“Off the record?” He looked again at her Dictaphone, until, with a deliberate gesture, she clicked it off.
“Fine. What’s the problem with talking about this?”
“The staff are…superstitious. In the past, we have had to destroy our entire crop and start again when it was felt that the final stages of the process had become common knowledge.”
“Amongst the public?”
“Amongst the plants.”
Janet could not suppress a snort of laughter. “Dr Bryan, are you suggesting that the seedlings heard what was happening to the older plants?”
“Let’s say discovered.”
“And then what – they refused to grow?”
“No. They can no more stop growing than a child could. But they can do other things.”
He gazed at Janet, as if weighing her up.
“Did you know,” he said finally, “That, when attacked by insects, a stalk of wheat releases a toxin to repel them, which also warns other wheat-stalks around it? If one plant in a field is under threat, all the other stalks will release the toxin, even if they have not yet been attacked. And here we work in confined quarters, day in, day out, with thousands of plants. Wheat grows in the open air; whatever its defences against a combine harvester, they are short-lived. But our workers were sitting targets.”
“Breathing difficulties to start with. Then rages, hallucinations and extreme acts of aggression amongst the staff. The facility became total anarchy. We were forced to destroy the entire strain as a precaution. We hope the variety we are working with now is more peaceable. And as long as we keep the harvesting workers, tools and clothing away from the growing plants, it seems to prevent these chemical messages from being transferred, and the defence mechanism remains untriggered.”
Janet stared at him. He seemed perfectly serious. After a moment, she said, “But they’re just tomato plants. My mother has them in her greenhouse.”
“Miss Morgan, the history of evolution is an arms race between predator and prey. The plant kingdom is far more complex, bloodthirsty and aware than we are comfortable imagining, and, I daresay, it will outlast the animal one.”
They were both silent. Finally, Janet said, “If I print this, there’ll be outrage. Many of our readers are vegetarians. How do you think they’ll take the news that plants react badly to being harvested?”
“Well, exactly.” He checked his watch. “I’m afraid I have some other appointments this afternoon. I hope you have enjoyed your visit to TomTech. Can I offer you a complementary box of our produce? These ones are perfectly safe.”
Janet looked at the vivid, glossy spheres, spilling towards her from the wicker baskets.
“No thank you,” she said at last.
Dr Bryan smiled. “Quite. I must say, I’ve rather gone off tomatoes myself.”