Yesterday, in a post entitled Enough Food for an Empire – Agriculture and Biodiversity on the Inca Terraces of Moray, Peru, I wrote about how the ancient Inca developed not tens, not hundreds, not a thousand varieties of potato, but 5,000 distinct species! I also discussed contemporary monoculture, or the growing, patenting and selling of only a few genetically altered types of Franken-seeds by mega-agribusinesses like Monsanto to farmers, efficiently destroying diversity in exchange for making money off a few kinds of uniform potatoes that are the same size, shape and texture; perfect for cutting up, absorbing the right amount of oil, and putting into a deep fryer to make fast food french fries.
To my daughter, Anevay, I posed a few questions:
- Why did ancient Peruvians develop so many types of potatoes while contemporary Americans grow only a few varieties?
- What do these differences mean for our society?
- What might these differences mean for the health of humans, and indeed, our planet?
To find the answers to these questions, I took Anevay and her friend, Willa, to the Natural History Museum to see the OUR GLOBAL KITCHENS exhibit, which focused on different methods of agriculture, how civilizations have been influenced by food, and how our food choices affect our health, the environment, and the people who grow, trade and eat it. YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
Many of the foods we eat today looks, tastes and even behaves very differently from even 500 years ago. Meso-Americans, for example, took a wild grass called teosinte and domesticated it into maize by saving kernels from from plants with desirable characteristics and planting them the following season.
An of course, as Anevay and I had learned in Peru, ancient Peruvians developed 5,000 varieties of potatoes by carefully selectively breeding certain traits (e.g., creamier consistency, ability to adapt to high altitude, and/or less bitter taste), and
Today, humans are still manipulating nature. Yet, using our keen knowledge of genetics, we’ve developed foods in laboratories that- while still being eaten by humans- can barely be considered grains or vegetables…
Scientists at Monsanto, for example, have created a variety of potato called NewLeaf that contain the gene of a bacterium that kills insects that feed on the plant’s leaves, effectively weaving pesticides directly into the growing plant. This Franken-plant made many people question whether the plant would ultimately be safe for human consumption. After all, nature doesn’t mix frogs with trees. Even though we CAN splice potatoes with bacteria, does this mean we SHOULD? The bacterium acts as a poison, killing the insects that come in contact with the plant. It isn’t something that can be washed from the leaves of the plant: it’s in every single one of the plant’s cells. While we *think* it’s safe for human consumption, how can we be sure without generations of testing? I, for one, don’t really want my kid to be a part of this science experiment.
Already having chosen the potato as the plant I wanted to study at the OUR GLOBAL KITCHENS exhibit, I asked each of the girls to choose a food to learn more about.
Willa read about chickens. What she found out was shocking. While these birds used to be free to scratch the earth for insects to eat, and laid, on average, 12 eggs per year, they are now confined to such small spaces that they aren’t able to move on the mega-farms where they live, and are fed fattening feed full of antibiotics so that they don’t die of diseases from living in such close quarters. Worse, because of unnatural means, now can lay over 300 eggs per year. 12 eggs… 300 eggs… Quite a difference!
Anevay learned more about corn. Over thousands of years, human developed countless varieties of corn. Like the potatoes we at in Peru, corn comes in a rainbow of colors. Some breeds have enormous, starchy kernels, others have smaller, more uniform and sweeter kernels. In America, however, Anevay read that ONE type of corn is being grown on huge mega-farms. Monsanto owns the rights to this corn, which means that farmers can’t save kernels and plant them the next season, but must buy the seeds directly from the supplier. The corn- hearty, resistant to insects and the changing environment- seems like a good crop. Yet there’s more than meets the eye… Corn has little nutritional value, is full of fattening sugars, and is single-handedly leading to the obesity epidemic racing around the world. In addition- being forced to raise one type of corn means that other varieties go extinct. History tells us that this is pretty dangerous.
I read, of course, about the potato. I soaked in the colors of different varieties of potatoes grown in Peru, and then read about how Westerners have shot themselves in the food by relying on only one type of the tuber for food.
In 1846, Ireland experienced a complete societal collapse after blight destroyed ALL of the country’s potato crops. Farm by farm, potatoes- which were the primary food for over one third of the people of Ireland- turned black and rotted in the fields. One out of eight people starved to death, and over a million people emigrated to America. Outside of Ireland, the potato blight is known as the Irish Potato Famine. In Ireland, it’s remembered as an Gorta Mór, or The Great Hunger.
The Great Hunger never would’ve happened had Ireland grown more than one variety of potato. Sadly, the Irish Lumper, a hearty, frost-resistant potato, succumbed to the blight. Other potatoes would’ve survived, as they aren’t affected by the disease.
Unfortunately, people like to learn the same terrible lessons over and over. In America, we only grow a few types of potatoes. Monsanto has a monopoly over the farming industry, and sells seeds and starter plants that have qualities appealing to the fast food industry. Uniformity is valued. One ear of corn should look and taste just like another, and a potato should absorb the same amount of oil as the next as they are fried into french fries at McDonalds.
Fortunately, not ALL people like to learn the same terrible lessons over and over. Anevay, Willa and I read about how city farmers right here in New York are growing organic, non-genetically modified foods on roof-tops. And we saw exhibits offering solutions for how and where we can grow food as our human population continues to bloom.
Our ancestors grew food that tasted good, and also traded it for other goods. Today, many of our concerns are the same: eat good food; have nice things. Yet the methods for raising and selling food are different- huge companies own the rights to seeds, and command the market. To maintain biodiversity, and indeed, to ensure our safety, it would seem that it should be our responsibility to learn as much about food as possible, make informed choices about what we eat, and who we choose to support with our hard-earned money.
OUR GLOBAL KITCHENS, while not espousing one method of farming over the other, provided information that allowed us to make our own choices. From what we’ve learned in Peru and through years of study, we already knew that we wanted to support local, organic farmers. This exhibit only confirmed it.
Want to visit the Natural History Museum in New York City to learn more about the foods we eat? While the OUR GLOBAL KITCHENS exhibition has now ended, you can learn about foods grown by indigenous peoples in the Halls of Plains and Northwest Coast Indians, Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians and Hall of South American Peoples. You can also visit the Hall of African Peoples to learn about traditional irrigation systems, and the Hall of Asian Peoples to learn about spices and the trade system along the Silk Road.
In addition, you can still explore the OUR GLOBAL KITCHEN website, which features videos, photo galleries and more.
Tell us- what food choices do you make? We want to know!