X Food

Cartoon: Ain't NaturalOne of the downsides of city life is that it isolates people from where their food comes from. Until the 20th Century, more people lived on the farm than in the cities. Even those in small towns who didn’t farm might have a vegetable garden and a few chickens. Now there’s families who’re several generations removed from growing their own food. As a result, people sometimes get, shall we say, strange ideas about their food. Especially the word “natural.” That’s usually more of an advertising buzzword than anything. The irony is there’s very few true all-natural foods in the “close to nature” sense. And there hasn’t been for several thousand years.

Unless you’re into hunting, fishing, and gathering, just about everything on your plate has been adapted, modified, cross-bred, or otherwise tinkered with for millennia. The only exceptions are fish and shellfish caught in the rivers and open sea, and I’m not 100% sure no one’s tinkered just a little with some of those. Even mushrooms and truffles can be farmed these days . The beef on your hamburger? Bred from aurochs. The wheat in the bun? Modified over thousands of years. The yeast that made it rise? Ditto. The potatoes? Specially selected from mutation. The lettuce, onion, and tomato? All modified for generations. Everything.

From the moment the first human chose seed from the year’s best crops to save for the next, man has been selecting crops and animals for their best attributes. Farmers took advantage of mutations that produced better crops or animals to make new varieties. Over years domesticated plants changed until some, particularly grains, barely resemble the original plant. Corn (that’s maize for the pedantic), looks radically different from the original plant, and is so heavily modified it cannot grow well without human assistance.

Natural mutations are random and rare, but imagine if you had a plant who’s every seed produced something new. That’s the case with crops like potatoes and some fruits. Potato seeds are genetically unstable. Plant a potato seed, and any sort of potato might come up. Apples are genetically unstable as well. Plant a seed from that delicious apple, and you will likely get a “spitter:” an apple so tart you can’t eat it. But you can make cider out of it, which puts Johnny Appleseed in a different light.

So, if you can’t plant potatoes or some fruits from seed, what do you do? Why, you clone them. That’s what farmers are doing when they plant sliced tubers and call them seed potatoes, and what a nurseryman does when he takes a cutting from a delicious apple tree and grafts it onto root stock. They’re making genetic copies of the original plant. In other words, clones.

There are other crops that are clones. Sweet potatoes, for one, which are really yams. Farmers plant “slips,” which are taken from the original plant. Sugar Cane is another clone. Farmers plant joints of cane, which form plants identical to the original. What’s more, farmers have been doing this for thousands of years.

Since these plants are copies of the original, unless you have a chance mutation you won’t get a different variety out of them. So, how do farmers discover new varieties? They plant the genetically unstable seed and see what comes up. If it’s an improvement, you have a new cultivar. If not, you try again.

Another way of tinkering with crops are hybrids. Hybrids are crosses between different or similar species. Most crops planted today are hybrids. Hybrids of different species tend to be sterile, like the great majority of mules, or, if they’re from the same species, will revert to the parent plants with the next generation. That’s bad if you want to save the seed for next year, but hybrids can have such advantages in yield and disease resistance that they are usually worth the cost. Most of the varieties of crops (called cultivars), farmed today are hybrids.

Even though humans knew about hybrids for thousands of years, just how it worked was a mystery until the 19th Century, when man learned about genetics. With a basic understanding of how it worked, hybrid crops took off. And when they learned how to mutate them –

What? Yes, some crops are descended from deliberate mutations, exposed to chemicals or radiation to alter their genes. Some important cultivars, including grains and fruits, were made by deliberate mutation. And yes, some were exposed to gamma rays, only they didn’t turn greener and develop a bad attitude.

Knowing all this, it’s hard for me to get worked up about the latest development in tinkering with crops: Genetic modification. Some people do. “It’s not natural,” they argue, as though their heavily selected, cross-bred, radiation mutated, food is found in nature. Genetic modification involves working directly with the genes rather than in the hit or miss method of cross-pollination or producing mutations. This gives greater control, and allows crops to have attributes that would be impossible to produce without gene splicing.

Unlike, say, irradiating seeds to produce mutations, some fear Genetically Modified Organisms. Fear them a lot. I really don’t see it. Part of it is growing up on a farm, and the other is taking time to learn something about it. GMOs are tested for things like whether they introduce new allergens into the plant, and some are designed to be sterile to prevent seed piracy, but it also helps prevent it from “escaping” into the wild. Maintaining standard crop separation for open-pollinated varieties grown for seed also works to prevent crossing with hybrids and GMOs. And if you eat tomatoes, you may have already eaten GMOs. One of the hurricanes years ago brought in a virus that overwinters in host plants, and that’s done quite a number on tomato crops. Some GMO varieties are designed to be resistant, and for a long time were the only kind that could be grown in some areas.

Of course, some folks just won’t be placated. If they man-up and grow their own open pollinated food, my hat is off to them. It’s just that their “natural” open pollinated garden is the product of thousands of years of human tinkering. If they want to go back to the original undomesticated plants and animals . . . well some are extinct.

They might could use gene splicing to bring them back. But somehow, I don’t think they’ll go for it.