16 March 2024

Foods we take for granted are "unnatural" hybrids.

I find it interesting that we tend to assume that the foods we eat come from naturally occurring plants. And of course, that's true in the broadest sense, but if you read Michael Pollan's books you know that naturally occurring apples are almost entirely inedible. Oranges and grapefruits are both hybrids of Citrus reticulata (mandarins) with other Citrus species that would never have occurred naturally. And now I learn that our sacred plant, which we worship daily, coffee (Coffea arabica, eschewing the more productive but inferior C. robusta), is itself a highly unlikely hybrid of two of the 125 or so Coffea species that occur naturally in the highlands of Eastern Africa: C. canephora and C. eugenioides. I'm reading where active research is ongoing to develop other, fruitier "coffees" from the hybridization of other species in this genus. Presumably they're also thinking in terms of the effects of climate change, which are likely to make it more difficult to meet the enormous worldwide demand for coffee through growing existing strains. Will wonders never cease?

Extremes of this phenomenon include navel oranges, Cara Cara oranges, and bananas, all of which are single-individual sterile clones reproduced commercially through grafting and vegetative reproduction. None of these artificial strains would survive a single generation without constant human attention, as they are sterile "sports." And yet major economic activities depend on these "unnatural" varieties.

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