Who is responsible for what we eat today?

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The food we eat today is not the same we ate 1.000 years ago – not even 100 years or 20 years ago. Carrots were not orange until the 17th century. Oranges were never orange!  And they still are not orange in their countries of origin – they stay green, always. They only turn orange when they grow in colder climates. 

Nobody would eat a tomato in Italy until 300 years ago.

Furthermore, nobody would eat a tomato in North America (and England) until 200 years ago! It took an American hero, one of the bravest men in the history of the world, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem New Jersey, who announced he will eat a whole tomato to demonstrate that it is, in fact, not poisonous. And he did, on a late summer morning in 1820, in front of 2.000 people who gathered to see him die. The account says one lady screamed and fainted when he took the first bite.  But he lived.

The food we eat, the domesticated plants, the way we grow the plants or raise animals, the recipes, the diets, the trends – they are all shaped by people. Some of the heroes, like Colonel Johnson, are known to us. Most are not – the domestication of corn: from simple grass to what we have today  – took 9.000 years!. We will never know the stories of the first people who figured out which mushrooms are edible, which are sadly not, and which mushrooms make you talk to God made of colors. The heroes. There are, however, a handful of people that impacted the history of food in the last few hundred years more than any other, and this is their story.

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  1. Christopher Columbus

It saddens me to start this list with a person we know now to have been enslaving and murdering the indigenous population of the Caribbean. But his impact on the exchange of foods between the Americas and Europe was enormous.  His voyages started the Columbian Exchange that changed the world as we know it. 

Many think that his main impact on food was him bringing the South and Central American plants to Europe – like the tomatoes to Italy, chilies and peppers to Spain (that later found their way to Asia), potatoes to Ireland, peanuts to Africa, corn, cocoa – but that wasn’t really the case. Most of the things he brought were not readily accepted as food in Europe (except for pineapple).  It took a hundred or more years of Spanish colonization to really introduce most of these plants to the rest of the world. 

But what Columbus did do was bring here to America most of the food that is grown and eaten today.  He brought bread. He brought livestock including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. He introduced to America wheat, rice, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, lettuce, onions, lemons, and melons.

You might be surprised that not much of what we eat today originates from North America. I believe it’s really only sunflower and berries (like strawberry, cranberry, blueberry). Nothing else. No vegetables. No cereals. Ah, yes, tobacco.  You see, it takes generations of farming to create plants that are a valuable source of food for humans. And native Americans of North America were never much of farmer. They were more hunter/gatherers, unlike the South American and Central American tribes who for thousands of years developed potatoes, corn, and other vegetables we eat today.

To make a garden salad if you are in the New York area before the Columbian exchange you would have to take sail and travel for two months to Europe and pick up your lettuce and onions. Then another year or so to get to Asia to get your cucumber, back again, pick up some olive oil on the way back and wheat and a cow for the rolls and butter – sail back 4 weeks to the Americas but this time park somewhere in the Central part, pick up some peppers and maybe corn if you want to be fancy. Get back home and start tossing, then realize you need some more color and crunch and travel back to Europe to get some shredded carrots.

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  1. Jethro Tull (Not the band)

Born in 1674, Jethro was a British farmer, agronomist, writer, and inventor. He brought to the world two small, simple inventions. One was a horse-drawn seed drill, a simple method of planting seeds in a neat row and equal distance. Apparently, before that, what everybody was doing was just to toss a handful of seeds randomly and go back to drink and throw axes at minstrels. 

The second thing he did was to notice the benefits of pulverization and stirring of soil around the plants (to improve aeration and access to water). He invented the horse-drawn hoe (predecessor to a modern cultivator). 

The combined effect of these two inventions, when they were implemented in the agriculture of England in the next few decades, changed the world more than anything ever before, more than the invention of printing, electricity, computers, or even Netflix. For the first time in history, everybody in a whole nation had more food than it could eat. There was a population explosion in England and people with no jobs on the farms moved to the cities. Farmers (that’s like 95% of the population back then) suddenly had extra money to buy stuff.  Manufacturing (mass production of stuff)  was needed for the first time – and so, it was invented. Hargreaves, Cartwright, and Watt (inventors of mechanical weaving and the steam engine) all based their inventions on Tull’s horse-drawn tools.

This started the period that you might know as the “Industrial Revolution” that spread through the world in the next 100 years. If you look at the history of humanity (based on population numbers) on a graph, you will see only a few moments of any importance. From the invention of farming, some 7-8.000 years ago up to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, there was no change, nothing really important in human development happened there. Around 150 million people lived on earth in 800 BC, and 600 million people lived in 1700, 2.500 years later.  Then in the 250 years since Jethro Tull (1750-2000), we grew from 650 million to 6.5 BILLION. Statistically, without Jethro, we (you and me) would probably not exist.

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3. Alexander von Humboldt

Alex was born in Germany in 1769 and was, during his lifetime, the most famous person in the western world. He was a scholar of many different sciences, from botanical geography to meteorology, a naturalist, explorer, and author of a whole library of books that were the ultimate bestsellers of the time. To put a brief history of his life in a small paragraph would be like trying to explain the plot of “Inception” in three words (“Man take naps”. Done). 

Let’s just note that more species are named after Humboldt than any other human. There are still thousands of monuments, parks, universities, streets, places, schools, and ships named after him in all of Europe and all of the Americas, more than any other scientist in history. Both Darwin and Goethe were inspired by Humboldt in their works. Thomas Jefferson said about him “I consider him the most important scientist whom I have met”. Napoleon Bonaparte remarked to him, “You have been studying Botanics? Just like my wife!” 

His work laid foundations for modern geology, meteorology, geomagnetic monitoring…He discovered the connection between climate, geology, and nature/life. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change. And, which is totally not important but I want to note it, he was a gay man. 

But one single discovery he made in South America changed the world of agriculture forever. He brought us the miracle of bird poo. Although it was nothing new – European farmers, just like the indigenous people of South America, knew about the fertilizing properties of bird poo. But this method was not widely used before Alexandar von Humboldt wrote about it and popularized it. You see, the bird poo in Europe was not good enough because of rain and humidity. But Guano, the bird poo (and bat poo) found in South America and on numerous islands around the world – was the right stuff, rich in nitrogen and other minerals. The selling of bird poo to Europe became for Peru the single largest source of revenue.  

The demand for guano led the United States to pass the guano Island Act in 1856. By this act, which is still on the books, it is legal to seize for America any island that has large amounts of bird crap on them.  In 1857, the U.S. began annexing uninhabited islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, Several of these islands are still officially U.S. territories.

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4. Fritz Haber

Fritz was a Jew, born in 1868 in what is now the Poland town of Breslau. He studied chemistry in Berlin and was a good friend of Albert Einstein. He tried to find an answer to the greatest problem of the world in those times – how to feed the growing world population (that doubled from 1 billion to 2 billion in just a little over 100 years, from 1805 to 1928). He figured that what makes crops grow better, more than anything else, was nitrogen. Not the nitrogen that is in the air – plants can’t use that. It needs to be fixed, not in a gas form. This fertilizer was, until now, being brought by ships full of bird poo from all over the world. Expensive and subject to piracy. We needed something better.

In 1909 Haber found a way of synthesizing ammonia for fertilizer from nitrogen and hydrogen. Just to remind you: the air that we breathe is made 78% of nitrogen and water is 66% hydrogen.

The fertilizer was immediately produced on a large scale (this were the Germans, after all) and it saved the world from hunger forever. It is estimated that 2 out of 5 humans alive today owe their existence to Haber.

But, Haber was was a Jew. Kaiser Germany, long before Hitler, was already extremely antisemitic. To prove his patriotism, Haber created another chemical compound that will put a dark shadow over everything good he has done before. He weaponized Chlorine gas, the poisonous gas to be used on the battlefronts of the First World War. He invented chemical warfare.

Germany lost the war and was faced with huge reparation payments. To prove himself a good patriot once again, Haber promised he will create a method of extracting gold from seawater. He was not successful. Around that time Fritz was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on ammonia, but at the same time, he also feared arrest as a war criminal for his poison gas research. Antisemitism grew in Germany and he was not allowed back to his institute. He went briefly into exile and died of a heart attack in 1934.

It is important to note that he also invented pesticide gases, with all the good intentions of saving even more billions of lives. But this work was later used to create Zyklon gas, used by the Nazis to murder millions in their death camps, including his own extended family.

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5. Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai was born in 1887 in Russia. He was an agronomist, botanist, and geneticist best known for having identified the places of origin of cultivated plants, basically where the plants we eat today came from.

His work was largely based on the work of Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, and some may argue that Gregor should be on this list. 

Greg was an Augustinian friar (born in 1882, in the Austrian Empire, now the Czech Republic). His experiments on the pea plant established the rules of heredity. But he is not on this list because his work did not really involve food. Pea plant was not his first choice. He started his experiments on passing on traits to newer generations  – on mice. But his bishop did not like the idea of a friar basically making mice have sex and he had to switch to pea plant.

Nikolai Vavilov in the meantime worked on plants for food only, mostly on improving wheat, maize, and other cereal crops that today sustain the world. He worked on plant immunity and traveled the entire world many times over, collecting seeds from every part of the globe.

In Leningrad, he created the world’s largest collection of plant seeds. During the 28-month long Siege of Leningrad by the German forces, a group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up the 250.000 samples of seeds, roots and dried fruits and moved them to the basement. They took shifts protecting them. They refused to eat the contents, even while nine of them died of starvation.

Nikolai Vavilov got into trouble with his study of genetics. At the time of rising of Hitler in Germany and the theory of Eugenics (genetic superiority) – Russia was going the opposite way. They claimed that there was no such thing as genes and no traits were hereditary. The study of genetics became unpopular and Nikolai was imprisoned by Stalin and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted, but he still died in prison in 1943, from malnutrition.

A man who devoted his life studying food and ensuring his country and the world would not starve, died from starvation.

There are many who we did not mention and that should be on this list, but we are limited by time. My time. Alexander the Great, for example, brought rice from Asia and onions from Africa to Europe and gave saffron and eggplant to India. His conquests and the supply lines for his army were the base for what was later known as The Spice Route. 

This road was later traveled by Marco Polo (allegedly) but he didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China. Pasta has been made in Italy centuries before and China did not have wheat. Marco Polo was just a great writer.

David Fairchild was an intrepid botanist who worked for the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction in the early 1900s. He traveled the world and managed to bring to America some of the most important plants of today, through covert and dangerous missions – like stealing hops from the beer makers in Germany. He also brought us avocado and quinoa.

Thomas Jefferson was crazy about French cuisine – he even managed to have one of his slaves be trained as a French chef in France. He brought us (did not invent it – just popularized it) Mac&Cheese, Ice Cream, and French Fries, covering 90% of most American children’s diets.

There were many more – whose life and work were maybe not that interesting. Norman Borlaug was the first to implement genetic traits and crossbreeding, saving the lives of over a billion people. Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen created the first, laboratory-made, genetically engineered organism…

This list doesn’t mention all the famous chefs, authors of books on food and recipes. There is no Julia child or Alton Brown on the list of people who are responsible for what we eat today, simply because having something to eat, for billions of people in the world, is much more important than how to salt the egg.


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