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On the Edge of Common Sense: The Food Age

Baxter Black Published on 16 January 2015

According to a food scientist at the University of Arizona, more than 100,000 plant and animal varieties have become endangered over the last quarter-century. In addition, it is commonly believed that only about 100 species of crops and livestock provide most of the food in the world.

His interest is in reviving these endangered plants as a regular part of the American diet.

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When I was a student, we had to study the benefits of the multiplicity of breeds, be they beef cattle, chickens, hogs, sheep, cows or goats. It was a colorful time. But as the food scientist observed, things have changed.

Today most of the chickens and hogs raised are composites, mongrelized to combine the benefits of many breeds into one superior sire or dam. My old animal science books have pretty pictures of Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Bantams, Plymouth Rock and Delaware hens and roosters. Now they are shuffled to the side.

The most common hogs in commercial operations today are a three-breed crossbred involving Hampshire, Duroc and Yorkshire. In FFA, I remember learning the traits of Poland China, Spotted Poland China, Berkshire, Tamworth and Chester White. They are now “heritage” pigs, their pictures hanging in the National Pig Museum.

Sheep breeds have managed to maintain some diversity simply because of low numbers in the U.S. I think of them today as either meat or wool breeds. But they come from royal ancestors: Merino, Suffolk, Southdown, Cheviot, Shropshire, Rambouillet, Dorset and Hampshire.

This huge diminution in the variety of plant and animal foodstuffs is the direct result of the industrial world’s obligation to feed a burgeoning global population. They take what genetics are available and improve upon them.

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Chemical companies devise growth enhancers and disease repellents, which increase production. Farmers and implement dealers enact planting, growing and harvesting methods with better machinery to produce even more.

Instead of going back to look for natural-substitute foodstuffs, these ag scientists are taking the best from all of them and building their own product. It’s working, and although many people distrust modern agricultural practices, they are the ones who benefit.

Food is safer, better, cheaper and more abundant almost every year than the previous. It is also more available to those with a tight budget, or worse, those who go to bed hungry.

I appreciate the food scientist’s interest in preserving plants and animals that are falling to the wayside. I sympathize. My little tour through the sheep, hog and chicken breeds is just me reminiscing about the old days. But it’s not real life.

The world went through the Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Exploration Age, Industrial Age, Technological Age – and now we are in the Food Age. What modern agriculture has done in the last 30 years to stay ahead of global starvation is nothing short of a miracle.

And still the onerous numbers hang over our heads: world population in 2014 of 7.2 billion, in 2025 it will be 8.1 billion, in 2050, when my son will be as old as I am now, it will be 9.6 billion.

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The downside: He may never see a watermelon radish, purple majesty potato or a real homegrown tomato, and that will be too bad. It’s the price we pay to feed the world. PD

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