Accelerating change

Since the centuries of evolutionary domestication, the process of change in today’s fast food economy has accelerated dramatically. For millennia, the process was imperceptible from one century to the next, as primitive cereals developed distinctive characteristics that went on to ensure their place in the future.

After thousands of years of filling their evolutionary niche, the most productive strains caught the attention of prehistoric nomads with eternally empty stomachs. At this point in time, there would have been thousands of plant species competing for precious resources.

Enter the future farmer, a prehistoric nomad who seeks out the most productive stands available. She and her descendants will work tirelessly for generations to ensure improved yields from increasingly homogenous and standardised seed stock.

Fast forward to the sixteenth century and on the high seas, ships are carrying plant material from their evolutionary niches to places where crops could be grown on plantations, to be cared for by slave labour. Here, growing plants would receive yet more preferential treatment, with regular weeding to ensure that the future crops would grow strongly. Successive generations of carefully tended plant stock could hardly fail to develop much sought after characteristics, such as increased yields or faster growth.

There is good reason to suppose that this selective leg-up for a number of key crops speeded up the rate of development. For example, a cursory comparison of a modern carrot or a modern parsnip against their wild, undomesticated counterparts paints a dramatic picture. It takes an informed eye and a lot of painstaking work to unearth a wild carrot or dig up a wild parsnip. The modern equivalents, by contrast, are distinctly chunky. The change was brought about with selective plant breeding in a few centuries, that is to say in a very small fraction of the time the species has been evolving.

For evolution to work, a species needs to generate a large number of potentially viable genetic variants to ensure the survival of future generations. Subsequent selective breeding sets out to reduce the diversity of the target variants, making future generations potentially vulnerable to extreme changes in the climate or the environment. With a smaller genetic pool, the resilience of future generations of food species already faces a challenge that will only be accentuated by growing them in monocultures, which provide a haven for spreading potential pests and diseases.

There are grounds for arguing that evolution gives rise to fresh genetic variants in response to environmental challenges, while also discarding those which are no longer viable in the prevailing conditions. For a species to thrive, it needs to cope with current conditions, which includes availability of food species that are also evolving. The success and inherent vulnerability of the human species for centuries has been a capacity to manipulate food species and human control of an increasingly disproportionate range of food species. The anthropocentric means by which this is achieved is humanity’s hubris before its nemesis.

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