Kevin Folta, Interim Chair and Associate Professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at University of Florida, has created a video response to your question. Please view the video here:
A transcript of the video is included below:
Well, thank you for the question.
This is a really interesting one to me because I’m really interested crop domestication. How did the wild weeds that were dotted all over the globe turn into elite foods that have tremendous nutritional potential for human beings? And, this is a really important question because when people say “God-made” I think what they’re referring to is the ancestral forms that man stumbled upon between maybe 10 to 20 thousand years ago and decided that there was some utility in them that could be used to help them survive.
A lot of the plants that we found were really pretty much useless. If you imagine what’s happening all over the globe maybe 10 to 20 thousand years ago, humans were foraging around looking for maybe some basic roots, maybe some leaves. Maybe if they were lucky they found some kind of berries. If they were really lucky, it didn’t kill them or make them sick. The products that were naturally found – the ones that you can think of maybe as “God-made” or present back at the beginning of human experience – were really rather unrefined and were very basic and didn’t really have strong horticultural qualities or agricultural qualities.
Since then, the rest of the work was done by humans. Humans are behind the driving force of improving crops from wild weeds. Even when they didn’t mean to do it – just by clearing a spot for a place to live, or maybe by removing some weeds – humans would allow a place for new foods or maybe improved plants to begin to flourish.
Humans would then participate in something called selection, where humans would identify the plant among the group that had the best characteristics – maybe the best tasting leaves, maybe the taller plant, maybe the plant that made better seeds, maybe the plant that didn’t make them sick. These early farmers were also plant breeders, and oftentimes they probably didn’t even realize it.
What you find over the next 10 to 20 thousand years (depending upon the crop – some were bred very recently, as well) is that human intervention took what was originally found here on the planet and humans drove the improvement. Everything that you see, all the different foods that you enjoy, are a direct result of humans improving something that was originally wild that had very little nutritional or horticultural value.
We’ve even started to see this more and more over the last hundred years where breeding has been accelerated and breeding efforts have been accelerated by bringing in wild crops and materials from the wild that were not improved, and using their traits to incorporate – through human intervening means – to improve our crops that we enjoy every day.
The more recent advances in biotechnology allow single genes to be moved with great precision and get around this whole problem of bringing in a substantial amount of genes you don’t want from a wild relative of a plant that you do want.
So, the original stuff that we found here (one last point) is that there are very few crops that we enjoy today here in North America that were originally from here – maybe strawberries, maybe blueberries, maybe a few kinds of other things. But, for the most part, all of the corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes – these were all from Central and South America. If you look at things like soybeans, citrus, grapes, lettuces, other kinds of brassicas like broccoli, kale, cauliflower – all of these came from another place in the world.
So, if you want to talk about what was originally here, what was the way nature intended it, it was for none of these crops to really show up here in North America. They’re all aliens on our soil. So if we think about what the question says originally about “God-made or -given” or what is naturally occurring, we really find that the crops we enjoy originally started as highly unmodified, very rough, very almost useless entities that man intervened to improve. Not only did they increase their quality, but they increased their range.
So next time you’re in the grocery store, maybe it’s a good idea to look at each individual crop, think about its long reticulate history, where it came from, who was involved in making it better – and we all find out that everything is substantially different from the way humans first found it.