People have selectively bred crops for specific traits since modern agriculture began 10,000 years ago. Food crops are selected for size, taste, and productivity.
You can see how much our food has changed by looking at art. Specifically, as Vox pointed out, this 17th-century Renaissance painting by Giovanni Stanchi shows a very weird-looking watermelon:
The watermelon’s insides are pale, full of seeds, and not very fleshy. Whereas today’s watermelons are usually bright red and seedless.
So how did the watermelon morph from that strange whirly melon into today’s juicy red version? By picking to plant watermelons with fewer seeds and redder flesh humans influenced the genetics of the melon. And that’s not a bad thing: The red flesh comes from lycopene, a pigment that gives it and other fruits like tomatoes their bright red colour, AND it’s good for you: Eating a lot of lycopene can help fight off heart disease.
This process of selective breeding has been used for all sorts of fruit. By the Renaissance many of our food crops were already pretty similar to how they are today. But go back even further in time, 7,000 years or so, and the food we know today looks even weirder.
The peach, for instance, went from a small cherry-like fruit that wasn’t too fleshy into the big juicy pinkish fruit we eat today.
A breeder was likely looking for good size, good colour, good flavour, and that the tree would produce a lot of fruit year after year, consistently, according to Clemson University peach expert Desmond Layne.
Those breeders would then cross pollinate plants with those desirable traits to hopefully get a larger and flavorful peach, which eventually they did. This great infographic by James Kennedy shows how the peach transformed from a small fruit grown only in Asia to a larger and fleshier fruit grown all over:
Another well known crop that’s a great example of human breeding is corn. Long ago farmers would only plant the kernels that were bigger, tasted better, or from plants that were easier to grind and peel.
Over time this selective breeding resulted in the corn we have today whose ears are large and filled with row after row of tasty kernels.
While selective breeding by farmers created a lot of the foods we love today, we now have a more efficient and accurate method of making better foods for ourselves and the environment: Genetic modification.
We no longer have to rely on chance and hope that our selective breeding will actually result in a better crop. Scientists can now isolate specific genes that will make fruits grow larger, be resistant to pests, or produce more food. While genetically modified foods are controversial, they are as safe as traditionally farmed foods.
Genetic modification and selective breeding can also be used to engineer new types of animals. From something like a hornless cow, which won’t have its horns cruelly cut off by farmers, to creatures a bit more fantastic. Anyone want a unicorn?
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