As we ate our organic chips and guacamole, Ronald and Adamchak explained that farmers have always modified food genes. Since the days, some 10,000 years ago, when humans first began to save the seeds of one plant variety and discard those of another, they favored the ones that produced the plumpest grains, the earliest maturities, the highest yields. They also selected hardy specimens, varieties that could withstand the heat and the cold and all the blights that cursed and killed their crops.
Even if none of the prehistoric paddy-technologists of, say, China’s Yangtze River valley could understand why only the merest sampling of the Earth’s increasing varieties of rice did not wilt and die when infected with the stuff that looked like a lump of mold, the blight that eventually came to be known as Xanthomonas, these generations of anonymous men and women were nonetheless gathering information and acted on their findings. They were farmers, but they were also seed scientists, consciously transforming wild grasses into harvestable grains.
In 1866, the science of seed selection took a major step forward. A monk named Gregor Mendel compared the characteristics of some 30,000 different pea plants and demonstrated the so-called factors of inheritance, the dominant and recessive genes that form the basis of modern seed hybridization. Mendel’s calculations transformed the mysteries of plant lineage and the crapshoot of cross-pollination from guessing games to matters of statistics—a transformation that perfectly suited the times. Soon after Mendel’s discovery, news of famine in India hit the London broadsheets, and the perennial fear of global hunger once again began to pervade American and European consciousness.
All of which may explain why, when Luther Burbank published his New Creations in Fruits and Flowers in 1893, newspapermen dubbed him a “seer.” Americans marveled at the geneticist’s pitless prune, his spineless cactus and his white blackberry. And when radio eventually bought the rights, “the Man with Green Fingers” was portrayed by none other than Lionel Barrymore. How was it, then, I asked the couple, that genetic modification had become such a villain to so many within the food movement?
As it turned out, Burbank’s popular success had far-reaching consequences. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 amended U.S. patent law to provide botanists with economic incentives for their innovations and transformed agriculture from a science based on information to a business based on information. Since the passage of the act, each new variety of crop has made possible an income stream from a new form of intellectual property—property that could be bought, sold, licensed, or monopolized. Eventually the demand for new varieties took on its own logic; hardiness, resistance to pests, and greater nutritional value were still important, but so too was newness itself. Seed manufacturers sought hundreds and thousands of varieties to patent and sell, and they pursued more and more advanced methods of creating the next best seed, including radiation-induced asexual mutation and cloning. Of course, the vast majority of today’s supermarket shoppers remain unaware that the science of agriculture is anchored in a project of for-profit genetic improvement.
At that point in the discussion, my grass-fed bison stroganoff arrived, along with our eggplant hummus pizzetas, vegetarian lasagna and an order of sweet corn cachapas.
“Almost nothing we eat is found in nature,” Ronald said. “In a sense, it’s all unnatural.”