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How Food Became Technology [Excerpt]

Patent protection helped transform agriculture into agribusiness
wheat



Flickr.com / Antaean

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."

When we talk about the genetic alteration of plants and animals, we rehash the arguments of Perdita and Polixenes. Are molecular meddlings—from the man-made pig and the gene-whacked salmon to the genetically modified soy that hundreds of millions of us consume each day in cookies, crackers, candy bars, and sodas—are these transformations condoned by the tools nature itself has given us, or are they freaks and abominations? In producing as much food as possible for as many people as possible by creating superseeds that promise superharvests—seeds laced with DNA from other species of plants and animals—we may be redeeming the world. However, we may also be aiding and abetting the destruction of nature as we know it.

Biochemistry may be destiny. Once food DNA was discovered, perhaps it was only a matter of time before our daily bread would fall victim to our infatuation with technology. But now that we can take apart and put together the chemical puzzle blocks of food, we can't ignore the game. We can't bury molecular biology underground and move on. We have to figure out what to do with the technology. What we do with it matters.

The greatest U.S. food technologist was arguably Luther Burbank, who bred 30,000 new varieties of plums before he came up with his pitless prune and destroyed who knows how many thousands of failed seedlings before unveiling his white blackberry and his spineless cactus. In 1893 Burbank published New Creations in Fruits and Flowers, and few doubted that the book would assure him a place in the scientific pantheon. Journalists dubbed him a "seer," Henry Ford and Thomas Edison came to visit, and Lionel Barrymore portrayed him in the 1947 radio play The Man with Green Fingers. Today, the effects of Burbank's breeding may be appreciated at McDonald's, where every French fry descends from a variety he invented in the 1870s.

It was largely because of Burbank 's extraordinary achievements in food science that the Plant Patent Act of 1930 amended U.S. patent law to provide botanists with a set of financial motivations to create new plant varieties. (Burbank was posthumously awarded U.S. plant patent numbers twelve through sixteen.) All of a sudden, plant breeding promised more than a little fame and a lot of strange new foods. There was money in it.

The Plant Patent Act of 1930 pushed food science forward and helped power agribusiness into the second most gainful enterprise in the nation (after pharmaceuticals). Companies like Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and Syngenta take enormous profits from their food patent operations, but the emergence of a custom-designed corn seed cannot be blamed on the modern world's seed giants. Hybrid corn appeared more than a century ago on the U.S. retail market, and the result back then was the same as the result today: general outrage. The reason: hybrid seeds lose their potency after a single generation.

For 10,000 years of agricultural history, seeds had been free for those who cared to gather them, a gift that ensured next year's harvest. But the newfangled scientific corn seeds of the 1880s and 1890s had to be cross-pollinated, packaged, and purchased anew every year. What farmer in his or her right mind would buy new seeds every year? Seeds could be gathered from the ground. Seeds were free. Seeds wanted  to be free. But then the stalks of corn from high-priced hybrid seeds began to take home banners, medals, and ribbons at state fairs, and farmers recognized that these new products were packed with new genetic information and that agricultural information was not free.

For a while, the farmers complained that the new scientific seeds should be put in contests all by themselves. But after a few harvests, no one cared how the seeds had been produced, and no one cared that they were barren. No one had ever seen such beautiful corn. No one had ever seen such extraordinary yields. No one had ever made so much money.

Soon U.S. universities were constructing their own agriculture and livestock laboratories, and institutes of higher learning joined the new molecular science of food. In the 1920s, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin named Harry Steenbock exposed milk to ultraviolet radiation, which increased its level of vitamin D. Steenbock had figured out how to use radiation to alter the chemicals in food, and with $300 of his own money he patented his method—at which point one of the world's largest companies, Quaker Oats, offered Steenbock $1 million for the rights to use his technology to fortify its breakfast cereals.

Steenbock had created food's first killer app.

Excerpted from Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, by Frederick Kaufman. With permission from the publisher, Wiley. Copyright © Frederick Kaufman, 2012.

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