This is the blog of Artist/Scientist/Programmer/Chef/Designer Zavier Henderson.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

We Need New Crops

We all know that the crops we grow didn't exist the way they do today a 1000 years ago. Ever since we learned how to grow plants we have been picking and choosing the "best" phenotype and traits. But many are convinced that we didn't know what we were doing. We now know a whole lot about what is and isn't edible, and what is and isn't good for our health. When we first started growing crops we just didn't, it was a risk trying to eat something new.

I see it like adding skill points in a video game every time you level up, but unlike video games, leveling gets easier the more you level (Moore's Law). For centuries we have been investing those "skill points" into the same crops.

We do have quite a few crops, but we are desperately dependent on a select few (like we wouldn't be in that much trouble if all strawberries, but we would be pretty screwdled in many different ways if all corn or wheat died). We have very few large carbohydrate crops besides these and many people's livelihoods depend on having acres and hectares of the stuff. Whereas our greens have been become more watered down (juicy) and crisp with no regard to the nutrient content, as for fruits and berries we just took the sweetest varieties we can find and bred them. I wish I had some showy study or hard data to show you.

But there just isn't money in proving centuries of effort and engineering to be pointless; money being the motivator behind most all research. Just look at crab apples vs. your everyday apple. Sure there is always the argument of "well crab apples have been evolving on their own for as long as we have been evolving their siblings." sure they have but have we researched that? No. I'm not sure it’s documented how these Malus (Apple Genus) subspecies diverged. Were they all like crab apples? Were they all like the apples we eat today but smaller? Were they a combination? How much variation was there between regions where these ancient wild apples grew? I am interested in what we lost when breeding our tasty fruits. Like what are these acidic compounds in crab apples like Octadecenoic acid or Octadecatrienoic acid? So many questions we don't know the answers to but so few are asking them. Where as everyone else is worried about fighting the battles we made for ourselves.

As we have been investing generations of work and "skill points" into these crops so have pests. Brassicas, for example, are notorious for being turned into bug food. Shouldn't there be alarms going off in people’s heads when there is such a thing as a CABBAGE MOTH or a POTATO BEETLE. Creatures are lazy and stupid by design; they take the path of least resistance. Cabbage had its defense mechanisms and was fighting its own battle against bugs before we stepped in.

When a lot of gardeners or farmers talk about Brassicas (like I did) they aren't talking about the family 9/10 times they are talking about 1 specific plant. That one plant is Cauliflower, Broccoli, Cabbage, Kohlrabi, Brussels Sprouts, Savoy, Kale, and more. That's right these vegetables are all the same freaking plant. No wonder there are pests specifically designed to take advantage of these crops and also its no surprise that these crops tend to need pesticides to survive. Don't get me wrong cabbage is good for you especially fermented like many enjoy doing with it.

But there are plants just as edible as Brassica oleracea was when we started modifying it. Take for instance Lamb’s Quarters, this plant is super resistant and has edible greens. This plant is so resistant and so good at growing that some varieties have been known to be resistant to glyphosate (Roundup(cancer)), people are bringing back 2,4-D (Agent Orange ingredient(more cancer)) just to kill the little thing. Honestly why isn't this sold in supermarkets when you can probably get multiple harvests in one season and it will seed itself and make infinite supply. We need to stop treating these plants that bugs ignore like weeds and make a business and an interest in it.

These plants are natural super heroes. It will be a long time before we can make the crops we grow now to be anywhere as efficient or healthy, instead of playing Jenga with our "skill points" on a shaky foundation that can easily be targeted by viruses, pests, and bio-terrorists. Lets just engineer these "weeds" to be new crops. If we focus on making new crops we can benefit from biodiversity and nature’s abundance instead of waging war against it. We don't have to have agriculture and nature be this huge departure that we are making it out to be. Let’s make food that can spread like wildfires and allow anyone to stop and taste success.

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