Humans have been growing food for thousands of years. Whether it’s grains, vegetables, fruit, or spices, the invention of agriculture is responsible for the development of society as we know it today. Before agriculture, we were nomadic hunter/gatherers, meaning that we ate whatever food we could find or catch. Finally, some genius realized that if we grew our own crops, we wouldn’t have to move around all the time, and before you knew it, civilizations developed.
But it’s important to remember that even though plants are food, they’re also alive, which means they follow the same rules of existence as everything else. Nothing exists in a vacuum; everything has a place in a natural hierarchy of “eat – grow – reproduce – get eaten.” Plants can’t move around to reproduce so they depend on other things to move around for them, mainly animals. The system works really well for the most part: an animal eats a plant, seeds and all (which are not digestible) and eventually the seeds end up deposited in a new location where they can grow into new plants, along with some handy natural fertilizer.
So, when this system gets interrupted through natural or human interference, the plant has to either adapt to the new system or go extinct. Here are three of humanity’s favorite foods that exist either despite us or because of us.
You know that goofy old song “Yes! We Have No Bananas”? It’s based on the fact that the most popular variety of bananas in the early 20th century, Gros Michel, was nearly wiped out by a banana tree killing pathogen. The older banana type was sweeter – in fact, artificial banana flavor tastes just like it. Today’s bananas, the Cavendish variety, are blander in comparison but they had one great benefit—they were resistant to the banana blight.
But nature always finds a way, and now the Cavendish are in danger of dying out thanks to a new superstrain of the blight. Bananas as we know them now are so dependent on human interference, they don’t even reproduce naturally anymore (we bred the seeds right out of existence). All we can do is find another banana that can resist the new fungus or just lose them as a crop forever, and then yes, we really will have no bananas.
We love tomates so much we’re still arguing whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable. Either way, we can’t imagine life without tomatoes, from salads to soups to sauces, hot or cold, whole or sliced, we’ll eat them all. But it wasn’t always that way. Though eaten by Central and South American peoples for centuries, when tomatoes were brought over to Europe, they were condemned as poisonous. After all, it’s a relative of the belladonna plant, from which comes the poison atropine.
But not all things are relative; potatoes and eggplants are also in this family. Some Renaissance experimenters tried to show that tomatoes were just fine to eat but there was a hitch in the plan – plateware was made of pewter and lead, not china, and the acid in the tomatoes interacted with the lead and caused convulsions. It took so long to get tomatoes declared innocent that it’s said it took Thomas Jefferson eating one to convince the 18th century to give it one more try, and we’ve never looked back since.
Remember in the beginning when we mentioned seed dispersal and how plants get replanted thanks to animals? Well, here’s a plant that had a big problem. Avocados are one of the most loved foods and super trendy right now, but frankly they should have gone the way of the mammoth—literally. The avocado suffers from one major problem (no, not that they get overripe quickly, that’s a whole other story) – their seeds are almost as big as they are. Some newly cultivated varieties, like Hass, are specifically bred for smaller seeds and more edible parts, but anyone who’s ever opened an avocado has known the brief anxiety of wondering how big the seed is and how much yummy food you get to eat.
The thing with avocados is that they were around for longer than humans were, and were the favorite of large mammals like mammoths and sedan-sized giant sloths and other creatures that went extinct long ago. Animals that big had the digestive system needed to pass a seed the size of a golf ball; we, however, cannot.
So, why didn’t the avocado die out? Because humans, who came onto the scene at the tail end of the mammoth and sloth era, found avocados and liked them so much they basically hand-seeded them throughout the Mesoamericas. It may be trendy now but we’ve actually loved them forever, and if we hadn’t taken them when humans first migrated to the American continents thousands of years ago, they would be as gone as sabertooth tigers and we’d never know the joy of guacamole.