Editor's Note: Excerpted from Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, by Frederick Kaufman. With permission from the publisher, Wiley. Copyright © Frederick Kaufman, 2012.
Once upon a time, nymphs, sprites, and spirits ruled every cavern, tree, field, and brook, and a meal was plucked from a bush, scooped from the mud, or carved from the carcass of some unfortunate creature. Then everything changed. A tribe of infidels and heretics decided it could no longer leave something as important as breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the vagaries of chance and the whimsy of the gods. These revolutionaries drained lakes, rerouted rivers, chopped down forests, and slashed straight into the guts of Mother Earth. They were the first farmers.
Ten thousand years of meddling with food has not made the meddling any more popular, even if the history of civilization has hinged on the science of food. Assyrian bas-reliefs and Sumerian cuneiform tablets depict artificial pollination—and manipulating the sex life of plants was one of the first technological feats that enabled our world of abundant fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, and chocolate.
What set the earliest agriculturalists apart from the even earlier hunter-gatherers? As the first farmers denuded nature, hoarded seeds, and engineered crops, they most likely appeared to be mad scientists, coaxing mutant monsters from the black earth. Of course, we no longer think very much about the fact that almost everything we eat has been domesticated and that domestication implies a history of human intervention. In fact, most people are unaware that the typical supermarket and green market varieties of apples, oranges, lettuce, and raspberries are not at all the same as their wild cousins.
Domesticated fruits and vegetables are generally larger than their undomesticated counterparts. They are sweeter and more aromatic. Compared to their great-great-grandparents, modern fruits and vegetables have lost their fuzz, their fiber, their thorns, and their puberty. A modern tomato—heirloom, organic, process, vine-ripened, or otherwise—bears little resemblance to its puny, sour, undomesticated relations that sprout in the Peruvian Andes. Tomato breeding has changed tomatoes down to the DNA, and the successful varieties that have found their way into our supermarket carts have been cloned and cloned again.
The red jungle fowl of Thailand eventually became a Perdue chicken. The extinct aurochs of the Fertile Crescent eventually became Holstein cows. The primeval apples of Kazakhstan eventually became Gala and Red Delicious. Ancient tillers of the earth needed at least 300 years to domesticate corn and more than 1,000 years to domesticate wheat. But no one really knows how weeds first became crops.
Did mongrel grains serendipitously meld together and sprout from the sewage dumps of sedentary fishing tribes (a current theory), or was the domestication of wheat grasses, pomegranates, and fig trees a willful act of genius? The most ancient of these technologies created new forms of life. And our fear of Frankenstein predates Mary Shelley's monster. In The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare laced Perdita's voice with anxiety and disgust as she condemned "Nature's bastards," new varieties of flowers created by Elizabethan methods of artificial pollination. Not to worry, argued Polixenes, for "Nature is made better by no mean / But Nature makes that mean; so over that art / Which you say adds to Nature, is an art / That Nature makes."