The Miracles of Plants & Animals From Hybrids to GMOs
Domesticated plants and animals are a miracle, and in the 21st century they are, increasingly, a man-made miracle.
For millions of years, human beings were hunters and gatherers. They simply lived off the bounty of the land. But somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, humans in seven, separate areas of the globe discovered that they could control certain animals, gathering them in herds, feeding them, breeding them, and in the process supplying more meat for their tribes. Around the same time, they discovered they could collect seeds from certain wild species, plant them near their homes, keep out weeds and pests, supply them with water, and harvest more grain, fruits, vegetables and nuts for their families.
Agriculture was born in those discoveries. The latest evidence indicates agriculture was born independently in seven different areas of the world –
- in the Fertile Crescent of Near East about 10,000 years ago
- in the Yangtze River corridor of South China about 8,500 years ago
- in the Yellow River valley of North China about 7,800 years ago
- in central Mexico about 4,800 years ago
- in the south central Andes region about 4,500 years ago
- in the eastern United States about 4,400 years ago
- and in Sub-Saharan Africa about 4,000 years ago.
What makes the development of agriculture miraculous is how unlikely the process really was. For instance, wild rhubarb first grew along the Volga River in the Gobi Desert. Usually, the most edible parts of a plant are the leaves, but rhubarb leaves can kill. So, who first figured out that the stalks were edible at all and, in fact, had a wonderful tart flavor especially when cooked with sugar? Who first domesticated the rhubarb?
In the Amazon, bitter manioc contains enough prussic acid to kill anyone who eats a meal-sized portion. But someone in a native tribe discovered that pounding the root, then soaking it and cooking it creates tapioca. Who figured that out and how?
Or consider the miracle of corn. When the native ancestors of the Aztecs started cultivating a wild grass called “teosinte,” they didn’t know they were producing the ancestor of maize and corn. Teosinte had numerous small stalks, each with several small grain spikes. Through thousands of years, farmers selected the best plants of each generation and eventually corn plants developed into a single stalk plant with kernels conveniently packaged in a few large, easily harvested cobs. Modern corn would not survive as a species without human intervention – the cobs are so packed with seeds and surrounded by such tight husks that the plant itself can’t propagate its own seeds. Humans have to break the cobs off the stalks, husk the cobs, break the kernels off the cob and plant the seeds — otherwise the species would die out.
These Native American corn farmers were perhaps the first hybrid plant breeders, the predecessors of the scientific plant breeders of the 1930s.
The science of breeding and growing crops and livestock took a quantum leap in the last quarter of the 20th century into the GMO Age.
Dr. Don Lee (right) teaches plant breeding and genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Don says the plant scientists of the 30s were trying to control nature. “Scientists in the early 1900s were discovering things about something called genes. They had never seen a gene. It was mysterious. But they could see the effects of those genes.” Don says that the science of hybrids was something like controlled accidents. “Somebody discovered that if we cross two of these inbreds, that themselves aren’t very productive. The hybrid that they produce is incredibly productive.”
Scientists were discovering and controlling a natural process. Today, scientists have discovered ways to actually modify the internal structures and sequence of genes, particularly in plants. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become the man-made miracle of the 21st century – for better or worse.
In this section of the web site we’ll explore –
- how the Green Revolution became a series of institutions dedicated to alleviating hunger and subsistence farming around the world. We’ll see how the mission has changed over the years;
- how climate change may affect agriculture and how agriculture may need to change to reduce greenhouse gases;
- how fuels derived from agricultural products have changed energy systems;
- how the growing and marketing of meat has changed from 1970 to today;
- how the fertilizer industry has grown up;
- how genetically modified organisms have changed farming practices in the U.S. seemingly overnight, and how some critics have sought to reign in their growth;
- and how the movements for sustainable agriculture and organic farming practices have grown.
Man-made miracles are wonderful, but they still pale in comparison with the fundamental miracles of nature.
Heather Derr (left) and her husband farm outside York, Nebraska, and Heather recalls the wonder she felt walking by a field they had recently planted in soybeans. “It had rained and it [the ground] had caked,” she says. “Here is this little bean plant trying to come out of the ground. It has pushed a dirt clod that is about this long and about this thick up and out of the way so it can poke its head out… A corn plant that is leaning this way will put down a brace root to help itself set itself back up so it can grow straight up toward the sun.
“Crops are fascinating,” Heather says.