By Robb Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
What comes to mind when someone says, “Thanksgiving.” Now let me guess what you’re thinking:
Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, rolls, sweet potato casserole and pecan or pumpkin pie. Oh, and a salad to get you started – a nice kale salad, perhaps.
Was I close?
Now let’s take a hypothetical situation:
Suppose you’re in charge of cooking your family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year. As you plan your shopping, your preference is for “natural foods” over ones you associate with modern or “industrial” agriculture.
I’m going to guess you’ll pass on any foods you think were created through the advanced scientific techniques of genetic modification (GM). But let’s take it a step further. Let’s say your passion for “natural” is such that you:
- Want to avoid foods that were developed through any human intervention in the genetic code – even if that intervention produced a plant variety that’s superior, from a human perspective.
- Want to eat only foods native to North America, so you’re not contributing to any “artificial” disturbance of the environment.
So those are the rules of this game. They essentially limit your Thanksgiving menu to the same foods the Pilgrims had. I’ll make one little exception to help you out and put you on an even footing with the Pilgrims: I’ll go easy on restriction No. 2 and let you use plants and animals the Pilgrims had brought over from England. Nothing, however, brought later than 1621, the year of the first Thanksgiving feast.
So, excluding the wild turkey and other wild game and fish, here’s your ingredient list:
- Vegetables and legumes — Squash/pumpkin, garden or dry beans, swamp cabbage, carrots and spinach, cattail, tiger nuts and Jerusalem artichoke;
- Grains — Corn, wild rice, wheat and grain amaranth;
- Fruits – chili peppers, American Plum, blueberry, blackberry, American persimmon, buffaloberry, chokecherry, American grape, serviceberry, cranberry, paw paw, and prickly pear;
- Nuts – sunflower, acorn, black walnut, pine nut, pecan, hickory nut, chestnut, and beechnut.
So … mashed potatoes? Well, actually, no mashed potatoes for you, because white potatoes originated in South America and had yet to make it to North America. And no sweet potato casserole either, because sweet potatoes are native to the Caribbean and were unknown then to North America.
Gravy? Well, you could call it that, I guess, but your flour would probably have to come from corn and your milk from goats. Maybe you’d be better off doing what the Pilgrims did and cook a thick corn mush or porridge.
Brussels sprouts? Broccoli? Kale?
Nix those completely. Farmers bred these staples of today’s diets from wild mustard. None of those crop ever grew – none grows — in the wild. And none were cultivated in the United States until well after the Pilgrims.
I know you want your vegetables, though, so I suggest you enjoy your swamp cabbage and onions and spinach.
As for grain, you’ve got wild rice and maybe a little bit of wheat but mostly corn. If you opt for the corn, however, remember to grind it up first, because it’s flint corn – as in, “kernels hard as flint.” Chew it and you’ll need to find a dentist, which is hard to find on Thanksgiving. The corn you’re used to, with the generous rows of soft plump kernels, doesn’t qualify as “natural” for our purposes, because it’s been genetically modified through selection by farmers and, more recently, by scientists.
Cranberry sauce? Uh, no. Sugar has to be imported from far away, and it’s too expensive.
Pecan or pumpkin pies? Forget them. Not enough sugar and no butter to make a crust. But you could dice and stew your pumpkins and then season them to make tarts. I’m sure they’re delicious.
Just don’t choke on the chokecherry or sink in the swamp cabbage.
Okay, I’ve had my fun. But here’s my larger point. Many of the ideas floating around in people’s heads are infused with romanticism and marked by extremely fuzzy thinking.
What makes food “natural”? Is broccoli less natural because farmers developed it from wild cabbage through selective breeding? If not, then why isn’t the corn we eat today as natural as flint corn? Because a technique more precise than selective breeding was used by scientists rather than farmers to introduce a beneficial trait and help it resist insects without pesticides?
How far are we to go with the idea of “native plants”? Are sweet potatoes and hundreds of other foods grown in this country “unnatural” because they came here from somewhere else, just like most of us (or our ancestors)?
And how “natural” is farming itself? After all, early human beings were hunter-gatherers. When we alter land usage to grow crops, is that “natural”? And when we alter the evolutionary path of a plant, like the pumpkin, is that “natural”?
Final question: Did our ancestors actually eat better than we do?
I’ll answer that one definitively. No. In fact, superior childhood nutrition is the main reason that people in developed countries are generally taller than our ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Modern agriculture has its issues – I don’t deny that.
But it has nonetheless given us more abundant, varied, tasty, wholesome and inexpensive food than any civilization has ever broadly enjoyed before. And if we address the issues associated with it and other aspects of our food production system – issues including carbon emissions, nitrogen pollution, soil erosion and water consumption – we can bring modern agriculture’s blessings to all of humanity.
You may disagree, and you may prefer to make your Thanksgiving dinner from the ingredients listed above.
But I’m going to help myself to the mashed potatoes — and count my blessings.