Friday, April 10, 2015

Comfort food...

Humans all over the world have a special relationship with food sources that are central to their way of life.  When you think of the history of Irish people – it was around potatoes, Sioux Indians - around the buffalo, People of South China- rice, Mexicans -corn, Native Alaskan people – seals, Hawaiians – taro root, people of many countries including thee middle east, and America - wheat… Russia  -wheat,  buckwheat, or potato (depending on the region) of course we all add other foods when they are available.  Some traditional people developed complex food cultures adapting to a variety of foods – the Inca of Peru used potato, corn, squash, beans, peppers, and more.  Modern North Americans, with our bulging super markets, have a huge array of foods – but even us get most of our energy food from wheat, corn,  and potatoes.  (Notice that one thing not natural to our diet in processed sugar!)

Peruvian women tending their potato patch

There is a branch of Science that studies the relationship between our human food crops and the development of societies.  Its called Etnobiology… There are  sections in the national arboretum in Washington DC dedicated to Etnobiology

 My favorite  Etnobiology garden is in Oaxaca Mexico that has collected living plant varieties that have been closely related to the development  of the Mayan cultures.  Here are the earliest varieties of squash – before they were modified by human breeding. the original squash were so bitter that only the seeds were collected for roasting. Here is the original corn the perennial varieties of teosinte, which was crossed with varieties of wild corn to produce modern maize (corn).  They have also collected other indigenous vegetables like a myriad of pepper varieties, avocadoes, jicama, chocolate, a wealth of beans, nopales (cactus pads), pineapple, tomatoes, vanilla, chayote…all in their earliest pre human breeding stages…  and their modern forms.

My blooming fava bean plants

Every fall in my garden, before the fall rains, I go around and poke holes in the dry soil (no pre –preparation necessary) and randomly stick in Fava Bean seeds wherever there is an open space.  Favas are the most forgiving of all the vegetables – In N. California they can be grown during the winter months, being watered only by the rain.  They don't mind a little frost, they do best if they have a little space to spread… no stakes needed.  

Medieval farmer planing fava beans
The interesting thing about Favas is their history as a vegetable. It was widely grown in ancient times – both Europe and the Middle East –today they are widely growth in central and South America, Africa, and Asia – but curiously they have never caught on in North America. They were widely grown 6000 BC years ago.  An important food to the ancient Greeks and Romans In England they are called ‘Broad beans” And to top it off growing favas in your garden causes Nitrogen fixing bacteria in nodules of the fava roots to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air into a form that adds to soil nitrogen available to other plans.  To learn more about fava beans go to>

Harvesting Fava beans

We owe a great debt of gratitude to our untold generations of ancestor gardeners who have started with small barely eatable wild p0lants – recognizing them as a usable food source and then practicing not natural selection but conscious selection of plants with desirable qualities – and saving seeds from these for the next years crop – Natural mutations crop up over time and beneficial traits can be recognized and added to the food crop gene pool.  

Varieties of Peruvian corn
Some plants like corn can be cross pollinated naturally by wind blown or insect carried pollen … over time humans learned to transfer pollen from a desirable plant to another plant so the same species with other desirable traits developing a plant with both desirable traits… It has been slow over many generations of trials – but we are the benefactors.  And it goes on… modern universities have plant studies departments that continue to develop new products – Like the tomato research at UC Davis
Peruvian potatoes
And organic home garden improvement…
And the good news is that now I can go into my supermarket and find foods developed by local people from the world over and enjoy them all!

I find it very disturbing that Monsanto is taking plant development in another direction. Developing varieties of seeds that promise high yield – but seed can not be collected from the crop for next year because of patent protection or the seed in not viable.   The so called Green revolution of 20 years ago was a false dream for many poor farmers who found that the seed was expensive and that growing it to get high yields meant adding expensive fertilizer to the ground – a sad betrayal of poor farmers world wide.  This process, which has always involved free sharing of information, now involves forming legal patents on new genetic products preventing others from using the knowledge to continue developing ever better plant products.

Development of modern corn
Now a new method genetic modification has emerged – loved and hated by proponents and opponents.  Many vastly misunderstand it.  If a segment of DNA can be removed from one seed variety that produces longer lasting sweetness in the corn (rather than normal conversion into starch) is an that improvement.  For a detailed examination of pros and cons visit this site…
 My preference would be that some of the applications are useful and legitimate – some are potentially changing the natural genome of plants on our planet with unknown consequences… The trick is to have the wisdom to know which uses to support and which to reject… I don't favor throwing the baby out with the bath… there is a hungry world out there that needs all the good nutritious food it can get…

 Isn't it a shame that supermarkets carry only a few of the many varieties?