nib·ble (nbl)
v. nib·bled, nib·bling, nib·bles
1. To bite at gently and repeatedly.
2. To eat with small, quick bites or in small morsels: nibble a cracker.
3. To wear away or diminish bit by bit: "If you start compromising too early . . . they nibble you to death" (People).


food science.

A whole new “Local Farm Product”


A New York City basement is pumping out a revolutionary and controversial new product, which surprisingly is supported by the State. At New York University’s Brooklyn College, professor Martin P. Schreibman and his colleagues, students and assistants, are developing a solution to ease the world’s fishing crisis and hunger: the Urban Fish Farm.

Aquaculture –the wave of the future for fish farm developments. This is not growing carp in your parent’s bathtub or goldfish in a display tank, this is real fishing for the future…if fishing is going to have a future. As it stands, the world’s natural resources for fish are being hazardously depleted. Currently one sixth of the world’s population consumes fish as a primary protein source. If human beings continue to consume fish in this way, it will not be long before we endanger or worse, extinguish, popular fish varieties like salmon and tuna. In the past we have attempted to solve this growing issue by farming fish within the bounds of natural ecosystems. This has caused its own sizable troubles for those ecosystems invaded and disturbed by the farms – ie. water contamination due to the unnatural abundance of waste produced by the farmed fish, then released into the natural environment. The new innovation, urban Aquaculture farming, where fish are grown in isolation (on land in tanks), could become a clean, safe and manageable way to allow our natural resources to recycle themselves before they are destroyed beyond repair. This will still cater to the tastes and needs of many nations worldwide. The urban system has been engineered in order to compliment rather than supplant commercial fishing, allowing our natural resources just enough of a break to avoid obliteration and eventually return to a balance.  
In New York City, where urban Aquaculture is just getting going, Dr. Martin Schreibman, of New York University’s Brooklyn College, and his colleagues, hope to see urban farmed fish like his sold locally (to cut down on fish importation) and grown inexpensively to feed the local homeless population of the bustling borough and greater city area. Schreibman and his colleagues are also hopeful that if Aquaculture takes off in the city, it could provide jobs and become a very lucrative industry –“a 1.5 billion dollar per year industry in New York City alone” in fact.

Which fish are being raised in these vats? Tilapia, primarily. Tilapia are farmed all over the world in many ways. In African nations they are being farmed in villages in man-made ponds where they are the primary foodstuff for the local villagers -- providing healthy fats and protein to the malnourished. The fish are also grown in vast fish farms in Asia in countries including Thailand for local sale and export. The popular fresh water fish species from the tilapiine cichlid tribe is the high profile fish for urban fish farming. Perhaps not quite as popular and as in-demand a foodstuff as salmon and tuna, tilapia fish are highly disease-resistant and can be safely grown in confined spaces (even safely in moderately filthy conditions) with an unadulterated delicious and nutritious result. The fish also have low to negligible mercury content, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) compared to other popular fish like albacore tuna and swordfish, making tilapia brain and nervous system-friendly for those who frequently consume fish.  But that’s not all they’re growing. The scientists at Brooklyn College have fine tuned their aquaculture facilities to such a degree that they have been able to grow fresh water and salt water aquatic species in captivity they never dreamed possible –everything from eels to octopi. They’ve even raised several species of tropical fish and sent them into space on the space shuttle in order to study the effects of hypo-gravity on their sexual reproductive organs! The most recent focus of their attention is on growing horseshoe crab from their eggs to aid in restoration of this species in Jamaica Bay.

Schreibman began working on urban aquaculture with Professor Yonathan Zohar, director of the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, who created the urban tank concept a few years prior to when Schreibman started his own studies at Brooklyn College. Zohar was using urban aquaculture and gilthead seabream to study how to spawn fish in captivity. The center that Schreibman founded, the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC), received funding from Brooklyn College and a New York State bond in order to form a facility for aquatic research and environmental assessment -- focusing on the impact of environment on aquatic organisms. After some time, the facility moved into aquaculture research and now also serves as a teaching facility. Graduates and undergraduates do field work at the centre –currently their focus is on Aquaponics –growing fish and plant life together.

The Brooklyn College Aquatic Research and Environmental Assesment Center project has been ongoing since 1998 and has changed focus several times. Its chief purpose has been constant –to grow and study various aquatic species in captivity under varying conditions. They have a number of different tanks used for different species under observation. At present, their major focus is on raising tilapia and learning as much as possible about their sexual reproductive capacity in captivity in order to make a viable new urban industry. There are approximately ten tanks for their tilapia, with sizes ranging from 300 to 1000 gallons of water.  Schreibman and his aides are growing roughly ¾ pounds of tilapia per gallon of water. A lot of fish.

Tilapia are omnivores so it is possible to sustain them on various diets. At the centre they have been fed everything from vegetable and cereal based meal, to fish meal to fish oils, to soy and flax meal. They will eat almost anything in their path so they are generally grown in tanks with little to no vegetation as they will likely consume it.

Schreibman has several research objectives for his centre. He is driven to learn as much as possible about how to control the growth of animals in containment.  He also aspires to see his work address world famine. He hopes that by growing abundant resources in limited spaces, and using a smaller footprint of water and land in growing food products, technology can truly maximize the yield of this natural product.

The State funding that Schreibman’s project receives has varying guidelines. At the moment New York State is very interested in alternative forms of energy, energy efficiency and conservation of alternative resources. As a result, Scheribman’s project is shifting focus to look more closely at sustainability. When asked how long he predicts his work will continue to be  supported, Schreibman replied, “I don’t know. Funding is really difficult to come by these days. But there are always questions to address as long as there is funding available. I hope it goes on forever until we get people fed and teach them to grow their own food…and get them eating locally. I think we’ve got a long way to go."   

The standard opposition to farmed fish is that their nutrients and flavor pale in comparison to wild, and organic fish also available in the city. Schreibman does not share this bleak view of his farmed product. He believes that the stable and clean environment offered in his lab creates a far superior product to that of the average fish farm. Scheibman argues that the proof is in the pudding and that his fish are far more fresh, clean and healthy than the average imported Tilapia available for purchase in New York City. “Those fish travel for weeks and months from Asia before they get to our markets…my fish are sacrificed in the morning and on my dinner plate in the evening.”

Environmentalists have some  concerns over the facilities used to grow the fish, specifically the significant amount of energy required to maintain the aquaculture lab facilities –a costly endeavor. Schreibman admits that this side of the process is an issue. The farm facilities need constant observation and maintenance to ensure consistent quality and sanitation. But he also feels there is a trade-off involved. In exchange for power and manual labor, our natural resources will get the break they need to restore and recycle, jobs will be created, and more people will be fed a superior, local, product that they can depend on.

Schreibman’s urban development eliminates some common problems which arise when farms are introduced within natural resources. Because his tanks are contained, their waste does not directly impact local fish populations which often suffer due to the spillover of antibiotics, waste and pesticides common in conventional fish farms. Schreibman’s tanks use a water re-circulation process  known as RAS (Re-circulating Aquaculture Systems). The tanks employ a bio-filtration system -- a bacteriological process where small filters called bio-balls are used within a filter as places for beneficial bacteria to grow. The tank’s water is re-circulated through these bio-balls which neutralize and trap the tank waste, preventing the potential accumulation of toxic substances in the tank –such as ammonia. The bacteria on the bio-barrels break down ammonia returning clean water back into the tank system. More water is added to the tanks to account for any volume lost in filtration. As tank design has improved, the amount of water added during filtration has been greatly reduced. Schreibman maintains that very little water is added at all to his tanks. “Only ten percent change over per week in our system –some systems have almost zero changeover…making our’s an ideal system…which uses less water and land to grow an ideal product.”

A major benefit of urban fish farming is that it eliminates the threat of escaped farmed fish –a major concern in ecosystems where bred fish compete vigorously for food with the wild fish populations. A hazard of conventional fish farming is an abundance of fish waste, antibiotics, and hormones being released steadily into a natural ecosystem, devastating that system as a result. Martin Schreibman’s fish are grown in such a fine-tuned, clean environment that they need no antibiotics or hormones to be raised. The solid waste produced in Schreibman’s tanks is currently being deposited in the New York City sewer system. At the moment that method is sanitary enough for the volume of waste at issue but if the city were to adopt the new urban farming method, Schreibman feels it would require a manure system to neutralize the waste.

While composing this article, I came across a new book called For Cod and Country by Barton Seaver, a celebrity chef who focused three of his restaurants on sustainable seafood before leaving the line. He served small portions of sustainable species of fish and a vegetable-focused cuisine to make up the rest of the necessary calories in his meals. Seaver now promotes sustainable seafood consumption through a host of high profile organisations including the National Geographic Society, as well as a new television show, In Search of Food, on the Ovation network. I was very curious to hear his opinion on Aquaculture. He had several positive things to say about it as a tool for saving our natural resources, a tool he felt was being ignored. “Aquaculture has a huge opportunity for profit - we import 80% of our food! Financial markets are remiss to not think of this as a huge opportunity.”When asked if he thought the US Government needed to support project’s like Shreibman’s, Seaver had this to say: “I do! But it is not necessarily the environmental side needing support...aquaculture means job creation, better nutrition for our kids leading to better grades in school...chambers of commerce, departments of education and defence...all of these cabinets should be interested in supporting and creating this new industry.” Seaver sees great flavor potential in urban farmed fish  if they are raised well, but acknowledges that this is not always the case, “some of the farmed fish I’ve experienced have been unpalatable, some shockingly brilliant in taste...and I’ve had everything in between...urban aquaculture requires talent, perseverance and skill to do well.”

Seaver acknowledges that while urban fish farming has a few drawbacks,  “all aquaculture has an opportunity to replace some of the burdens if done correctly...We have to develop systems that take energy and water into account...keeping jobs for wild fisherman in mind..Urban aquaculture in particular is a great opportunity as it makes omega 3s available to people unable to access wild coastal is an opportunity to answer some great social inequality issues that arise around seafood as well...” The most serious concern he has about adopting urban fish farming as a long term solution to the fishing crisis is that, “it has the opportunity to further distance our relationship with wild fisherman...fisherman deserve as much protection as danger is we further the disconnect between ourselves and our fishing communities.” But overall, Seaver still thinks the adoption of urban aquaculture is a positive development in the search for the resolution to the fishing crisis. “Urban aquaculture could be part of a long term solution...there is no silver bullet for the fishing should be lauded and welcomed as one in a host of tools that we should be pursuing...”

Exactly how much energy and money would be required to run city wide fish farms has yet to be determined, and is a guess Professor Martin Schreibman is hesitant to make. There are potentially many factors to consider before putting such plans into action which is exactly what Schreibman’s team is starting to focus on –drafting business plans for future projects in the city. Still, despite the haziness of some details, Schreibman is confident that Urban Aquaculture is the necessary future for fishing. He is aware that there is a strong push for Ocean Aquaculture -- where vast farms are dropped into the middle of oceans -- but sees it as the wrong direction to turn. The negatives are the same as those of conventional fish farms which he hopes to resolve with urban Aquaculture –an inability to track lost animals into the wild; pollution from large accumulations of fish waste; and toxicity due to high level of hormones and antibiotics present in the hazardous waste. He sees no sound alternatives to his system. For him, it is the only way. 



“What the fuck is a pluot?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times while shopping for fruit. I wasn’t overly eager to try it out either as it looks sort of like a large red plum with something out of whack about it; namely something orange bubbling up through its translucent purple skin. But one fateful night when plum crumble was on my menu and I was out of options I purchased a bag-full. The fruit was very firm and juicy. Sweet but not too sweet. When baked, the pluot segments bled a lovely fuchsia juice. I was inspired to find out a little more about the fruit, particularly since it was becoming commonplace in even the tiniest fruit stands around Toronto. I discovered a far more complicated food than I ever anticipated; a hybrid fruit variety with quite a history, which opened a hidden story about how all stone fruits come to our stores and mouths, and how we can never hope to experience the same thing twice.

A quick Google located a Wikipedia blurb and a genetic categorization and a patent. It seems that like any other invention, hybrid fruit gets patented and protected. The concept fruit, the pluot, is the property of a company named Zaiger’s Genetics. This company has cornered the market on this type of fruit development, hybridizing, and selling the rights to grow their many varieties of stone fruit, cherries and almonds, all thanks to one man with an obsession; Floyd Zaiger.

The road to Zaiger’s Genetics began over fifty years ago in Modesto, California when Floyd began to hybridize azelias and rododendrons to tolerate the heat of the California climate. Floyd taught agriculture at the highschool level and then at Modesto Junior College. Floyd later took a position working under Fred Anderson, the protégé of the legendary agricultural innovator, botanist and horticulturist Luther Burbank. Burbank made many notable developments in the plant world (he developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants in his career which lasted over half a century). Burbank notably developed the Santa Rosa plum. Zaiger worked for the Anderson Nursery for two years before he came to a crucial crossroads – either stay on full time, or create his own business. He opted for a solo career and began to hybridize stone fruit as a hobby. A time consuming hobby – developing a single new stone-fruit variety is a ten to fifteen year commitment.

Today Zaiger’s Genetics is still under Floyd’s control and run by members of his immediate family, including his daughter, Leith Gardiner Zaiger, who was kind enough to give me a thorough company history. The charming madame of the Zaiger empire has a degree in plant science from the University California Davis, as well as a rough and tumble southern accent, and a direct and to the point attitude. As she put it, “I do everything around here”. The Zaigers are now seasoned professionals when it comes to stone fruit development, always working with several species at a time. In fact, they grow 60,000 seedlings a year. “We work on everything and their interspecifics, from cherries to almonds to apricots,” explains Leith Zaiger. Unlike some fruit hybrid companies, Zaiger’s Genetics do things the old fashioned way – by hand pollination. Their operations paint quite a picture – one hundred and forty acres of experimental fruit trees fill their Modesto, California property. It is there that the Zaigers develop new species of fruit trees as “God” might – growing seeds together, allowing the new fruit to mature, collecting the new seeds, replanting them, growing the new trees, and collecting the new fruit for evaluation. They work tirelessly to narrow which new species are strong and desirable enough to be developed into an official new variety. Its no game for the impatient and the customer is always right.

The Zaigers are essentially in the designer fruit business. Every species is custom made for its intended consumers. Everything from flavor to texture to size to shelf-life to acidity are factors in development. Their fruit is sold all over the world and with that comes a broad spectrum of preferences and needs, not to mention environmental conditions to be negotiated. And tastes evolve, and fast. But contending with this sort of fickleness is the Zaiger family passion and constant battle.

The Zaigers are ideally situated in Modesto, California. Leith describes the climate there as “pretty temperate.” Modesto is centrally located in California, with high temperatures in summer averaging 98 F, winter highs of 45-50F, lows of 50F by day and 35-40F by night. The area also gets two feet of fog over the ground, which undoubtedly casts a mystical mood over the experimental fields where fruit is grown not seen any other place on earth.

The Zaiger’s hand-pollination techniques make their product more desirable to the nurseries and farmers looking to steer clear of the stigmas of GMO fruit. When it comes to GMO growing practices, “some people feel you’re making ‘frankenfruit’, they feel that something detrimental would be added to the gene of the fruit”. Leith feels that, “GMO will most likely become a valuable tool, maybe not in my lifetime.” Though the Zaigers do not develop their new fruit in a laboratory, according to Leith, it is “not necessarily harder to control the new fruit using traditional techniques. Whether you grow the fruit in a lab or a greenhouse you still have to grow it out, it can always have the desired gene there, but if that gene is not expressed, it’s worthless.”

I was curious how often their experiments flop and if there is any way to predict what will result? “Every ten varieties we develop, we know two will fail but we don’t know which. Stone-fruit varieties are not like fine wine, they degrade with age; they break down. Sometimes they don’t have the longevity to last for a long time, though there are some exceptions.”

Every time the Zaigers develop a winning variety they name it, patent it, sell it, ship it and someone grows, distributes and sells it abroad. The new varieties change over with the seasons. This is because they are hybrids and have no descendants. As a result, consumers are always experiencing something new when we bite into a “peach” or “plum” from season to season. To illustrate how many varieties are developed and discarded I asked Leith if they had any best sellers, “I can’t answer that, I don’t track them after they are patented and named, there are just too many”. The various species engineered, sold and grown are part of an ongoing evolution. Basically every time you buy a “peach” or a “plum” or even a “pluot” at a market or store you could really be purchasing anything from a “Zephire” to a “Flavor Grenade” (two of Zaiger’s past popular and now defunct varieties).

Leith and her family consider themselves to be “fruit snobs”. They know what they like and know that when they go out to buy something they won’t fully be told what they’re purchasing. “It can get difficult for us as consumers, is that peach sub-acid or sweet etc?”. Leith and her family have the priveledge to constantly eat their fruit fresh off the farm before it has been chilled and shipped and stored – before it begins to decay and lose it flavor and texture. The store bought varieties pale in comparison. It is the Zaiger’s mission “to improve on the shelf life and taste of good products so the consumer can taste the difference between the many varieties of the fruit that they engineer.”

The phrase, “we can rebuild it, we can make it stronger” springs to mind.

The Zaigers have devoted their lives to developing painstakingly specific flavor profiles and physical characteristics. These will not be described to the consumer. As a result, they develop their fruits according to regional palates. A key example of a variety they perfected to meet discerning tastes is the white fleshed peach.  It all began when Floyd visited France in the late 1960s. He noticed white fleshed peaches were selling for much more money than yellow varieties. They were sweet and quite difficult to harvest, their flesh often too sensitive to pick without heavy bruising. Delicacies. So Zaiger returned home to the US to develop a stronger-fleshed white variety for France and the European palate. Today more than 50% of the European variety that exists was developed by the Zaigers in California.

The white fleshed peach is a curious development in light of the Franken-fruit debate. Many people also express concern over hybridized produce regarding its nutritional content, fearing it will be inferior to the original varieties of the fruits. But with stone fruit, there are no originals out there. Under the microscope, white fleshed peaches reveal some unexpected nutritional findings. Many scientists have speculated that the more intense the color of a fruit or vegetables’ skin the more nutrient-dense it is likely to be. This is particularly thought to be true of the beta-carotene and antioxidant content of produce. Antioxidants are molecules that go through our bodies, ridding them of free-radicals (molecules which have been linked to diseases). By flushing these free radicals from our systems, scientists speculate that we can shield our bodies from diseases, inhibiting the growth of things like cancerous cells. But past studies conducted by Dr. David Byrne published in HORT Science Magazine revealed that white peach varieties actually exhibit more beta carotene in some cases than yellow and orange varieties, a finding that even baffles Leith. Dr. Byrne also discovered that several plum and cross breed varieties of stone fruit have very high levels of antioxidants, higher than blueberries, the super-fruit called the most powerful conveyor of antioxidants available in North America. So it seems not all hybrids are nutritionally lacking, in fact far from it.

Dr. Byrne has conducted many studies on the nutritional content of various interspecific stone fruit varieties. He conducts his research via Texas A&M University, where he is a faculty member. He has received funding over the past few years from the USDA Food for Heath Project, Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Centre, and the California Tree Fruit Agreement (a collective of tree-fruit growers of the state of California that markets on their behalf). He has published his research in various journals. One of his key articles from 2006 reports, “that [though researchers report] blueberry has the highest antioxidant activity among fruit…the levels found in red-fleshed plums overlap the levels found in blueberry.

An interview with Dr. Byrne and Dr. Luis Cisneros, published on the Texas A&M, expands on the value of their discovery for the everyday consumer. The pair “judged more than 100 varieties of plums and peaches…[finding that they matched or exceeded] the much-touted blueberries in antioxidants and phytonutrients associated with disease prevention”. The finding was considered a great discovery in “tight economic times”, because of the far less expensive price for the average plum compared to blueberries.
A plum has roughly “the same amount of antioxidants as a handful of…blueberries.”

The antioxidant levels of one hundred different kinds of plums and peaches were compared to five brands of blueberries. The compounds located in the fruit were extracted and an experiment was conducted examining their effects on breast cancer cells and cholesterol. This type of testing had not been done before. Remarkably, the scientists found that “the phytonutrients in plums inhibited in vitro breast cancer growth while not bothering normal cell growth.” Their research was preliminary and since then, Dr. Byrne has received additional funding to conduct more research into the phenomenal properties of the hybridized fruits.

The amazing findings of Dr. Byrne and his associates have helped inspire new stone fruit development with a nutritional focus. This type of fruit breeding is happening locally, in Guelph Ontario. Thanks to the support of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers’ Marketing Board, the University of Guelph has been conducting research to develop healthier and tastier fruit designed for the Canadian market using genetics, selective breeding and biotechnology.

Stone fruit development seems a bizarre phenomenon in a culture infatuated with organic and heirloom produce. We are so obsessed with getting back to our food’s roots that we frequently steer clear of anything that seems like a work in progress. Yet we embrace stone fruit; hybrid varieties of fruits that are nutrient dense and delicious. Like many of human-kind’s experiments, stone fruits are constantly being perfected and are always evolving. They are not perfect, but many individuals, like the Zaigers, are striving to achieve a modern perfection that never occurred in the wild.

So what the fuck is a pluot? Subject to change.


(article originally released on