When large-scale commercial farming became the dominant form of agriculture for the developed nations, mono-cropping was king. Immense areas of land cultivated with one crop, aggressively farmed to exclude all other forms of plants including weeds and companion plants, and heavily sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, created the landscape of lush foliage and the setup for wide scale plant disease.
It’s not that scientists didn’t believe that God created nature and plants, including vegetables and fruits. It was that they thought they could do better.
The Development of Non-Foods
To scientists, the key to finding a solution to pests and disease that plagued mono-cropped farms was to create hybrid plants. The world’s scientific community, corporations, universities, and governments rushed at the opportunity, and by the mid-1930s, the first generation of hybrid foods emerged.
Cross-breeding, the elementary form of hybridization, was a start. Next came breeding in selective traits like color and sweetness, and disease resistance. The Cavendish banana was the first experiment with selective breeding on a grand, global scale. That big yellow perfect long fruit that dominates the fresh food section of your local grocery store, in time, was transformed from a humble wild banana, into sterile, sexless commodity.
Humans had been breeding plants for millennia, but not until the modern era did they do it in spectacular ways. The success of the Cavendish created Latin American “banana republics”—nothing to do with the clothing store of the same name—and spawned a rush for other perfect foods that looked great, shipped well, had fantastic eye appeal, and sold millions. Enter the era of what I call “non-foods.”
In 1944, Standard Fruit introduced the Chiquita banana jingle, that perky, sexy Latina cartoon character that was to become the identity of the hybrid Cavendish. Later, bananas were bought because they were touted as being packets of pure potassium. That’s only partially true, but made for another great marketing campaign. A medium banana has about 422 mg of potassium, just a pretty good source of potassium. Not that sensational. It has about the same potassium content per calorie as a potato, and a serving of coconut water has 650 mg.
The banana industry was the first commercial success, but other foods were to follow. Grains and potatoes, apples and oranges, and the common tomato were targets of intensive hybridization. This was all before the era of genetically modified foods. The fruits and vegetables you see and buy today are the results of science and specialization.
Real, native bananas are small, slow to ripen (asnd when they do they spoil fast), and are sour tasting and very starchy. In traditional cultures where bananas are native, they are mainly used for cooking. In tropical countries, cooked plantains—a large green non-sweet banana—is a staple food. The kinds of bananas that are eaten raw are firmer fleshed than their modern commercial cousins, have lots of small seeds, and are tart tasting with a hint of sweetness. The commercial Cavendish is seedless, and no seeds means no fertility. You can’t grow a banana plant from a store bought banana. So in commercial production, bananas have to be cloned.
Organically Grown Foods are Much Different
Cuba, from where I returned last week, is a lesson in organic, locally grown, non-genetically modified, heritage variety fruits and vegetables. Bananas are grown in small family plots all over the periphery of Havana, the capital city, and every one has different varieties hanging in their kitchens. Most are used to make tostadas, mashed fried banana cakes. When ripe, they slices are fried, the heat brings out the sugar, into maduros fritos. And, sometimes, little finger-sized bananas are eaten raw.
Despite all efforts to make a perfect fruit, bananas haven’t cooperated without a fight, and disease remains a major problem. However, as scientists continue to develop banana biotechnology including genetically modifying them to contain extra quantities of vitamin A and crossing them with radishes and azaleas to resist disease, more and more consumers have become unnerved. Increasing numbers of shoppers shun the Cavendish banana and other overly hybridized and GMO foods. Scary stuff, for sure.
Tomatoes have much the same story, as I wrote about in a previous blog: flavor was sacrificed for a uniform red color, firm flesh that holds up during shipping, and a long shelf life. In Cuba, tomatoes are reddish green, full of pith and seeds, and flavorful.
Seek Out the Real Food
It’s good to know your food. The mantra is organic, seasonal fresh, and locally grown. If you want real food, remember to look for heritage varieties. Get used to the difference in taste. A real banana is not going to be sugary sweet, for instance. And don’t get caught up in looks: a real tomato won’t be perfectly round, uniformly sized, and red all over.
The United States does not have well-defined regulation for the growing, distribution, and research of biotech crops and foods. Few countries even bother. Cuba, however, cares and has restricted the growing, importation, and sale of all GMO foods and plants.
The genie is not yet out of the bottle. But, we’re very close. With estimates in the United States of more than half of all processed foods we consume containing GMOs, it’s important to be a wise consumer. And when possible, grow your own or buy fresh, locally grown, non-GMO heritage varieties: real food.