13 Food Plants People Have Modified

by Deb on June 9, 2011

Food Plants

People have been gardeners for thousands of years. In that time we have modified plants to meet our needs, whether that be good storage, easy harvest, or ripening at the same time. It’s usually a win/win, we get food, the plants get looked after. However some of the changes have been so drastic the plants can no longer survive without us.

  1. Corn is a grass, it comes from a wild grass called Teosinte. Over thousands of years the Mesoamericans selected those plants that grew multiple rows of seeds, until they produced giant cobs. The same amount of work cultivating gets you far more food to eat. And now corn cannot grow on its own because the cobs do not naturally release the seeds, they need farmers to do that for them. There have been similar but less extreme changes in all the major grains.


    A tiny ear of wild teosinte on a giant modern hopi blue corn cob.

  2. Cauliflower,
  3. Cabbage and
  4. Broccoli are all members of the same species, Brassica oleracea along with brussel sprouts, kale and a few others. The original species was a useful wild cabbage, and farmers began emphasising and keeping different characters. Cabbage and the similar ones emphasised the leaves, cauliflower is the beginning of the flower stalk that doesn’t develop properly, and broccoli is a very short flower stalk.
  5. What colour are carrots? They used to be purple. They were domesticated on the Iranian plateau around 5000 years ago and gradually spread westward. The purple colour is caused by anthocyanins, the same chemicals that give most of the red and purple colours in plants and seems to be protective. At some point there was a mutation that stopped anthocyanin production and caused yellow carrots, and a further mutation led to white carrots. There’s very little evidence for what was happening, but somewhere around the 16th century growers in Holland hybridised several variants and produced orange carrots with high levels of beta carotene. carrots
  6. Following the theme, wild Pineapples were small and seedy until early farmers encouraged them to become larger and juicier. A modern pineapple is actually many berries stuck together and commercially they are not fertilised, so they usually do not produce seeds. They are naturally pollinated by hummingbirds.
  7. Nectarines are mutant peaches that appeared one day with smooth skin.
  8. Bananas are herbaceous berries that were probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea 7 – 10 000 years ago. Once again, the wild variety are filled with large, hard seeds and farmers have selected the best ones for eating until they only have tiny vestigial seeds. Commercial bananas are produced from offshoots.
  9. Zucchini and
  10. Pumpkin are also the same species, Cucurbita pepo. Actually it’s a bit more complicated because ‘pumpkin’ includes many different species, but it does include C. pepo. Zucchini are picked while still immature, which is why the seeds are so soft. Like corn, p0tatoes, pineapples and tomatoes they come from South and Central America.
  11. Artichokes are actually thistles, the part we eat is the flower bud and the choke inside is the immature petals. The vegetable was probably originally grown for its leaves, but larger buds were also encouraged and developed into what we have today. artichoke flower
  12. Potatoes are members of the deadly nightshade family, and the originals were quite poisonous. The green parts are still very poisonous and should not be eaten. In spite of the huge number of varieties they seem to be a single species and probably only developed once, but it was almost certainly through hybridisation of several weedy wild species.
  13. And how could this list be complete without mentioning genetically modified plants? While this is far too short to get into the whole debate, it has to be said that a lot of the hysteria about GMOs is just that – hysteria whipped up by talk of ‘frankenfoods’ or religious thinking. The idea that we shouldn’t add genes to a species is way too late – we’ve been doing it for a very long time. When two banana species or several potato species were crossed thousands of years  it was introducing genes that would not have been in that plant naturally. Golden_Rice
    There are definitely problems to be aware of – are you introducing an allergen? will a pesticide resistant strain escape into the wild and become a pest? But they are similar to problems faced by traditional plant modification. There are also ethical problems with companies forcing farmers to be dependent on them for seed, but that’s a business problem not inherent in genetic modification. Just like any other type of agricultural development, each new plant or system needs to be judged on its own merits, not dismissed because it was made in a particular way. Two lovely examples of genetic modification include golden rice, which was engineered to produce beta carotene to help with Vitamin A deficiencies in poor countries, or some of the salt resistant crops being developed in India. With climate change causing increased storms bringing salty water further inland in India, salt resistant crops are more and more important to feeding their growing population.
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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Ange June 9, 2011 at 8:16 am

I love your blog – but I’m dissapointed you advocate GM as safe. As a student of Molecular genetics in 1990, I was part of a group that made a submission to a parlimentary inquiry (into the release of GMO’ s into the environment,) cautioning once they are released there is no going back, and the effects cannot be know in such short periods of time as required lab testing periods of 2 years or less.
now in the US there is this situation:
“The food toxin found is used in a strain of corn that is widely used in the United States as livestock feed and has been genetically modified to produce an insecticidal protein. This corn has received cultivation approval by the European Union but has not been widely adopted outside of the United States and is currently banned in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Luxemburg and Greece. Because of the toxin that this corn contains, the corn is now regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency as an insecticide.” from http://parentables.howstuffworks.com/health-wellness/food-toxin-found-blood-pregnant-moms.html


Deb June 9, 2011 at 10:58 am

Actually you’ll notice that I don’t advocate it as safe. I said there are pros and cons and gave two examples of possible cons, including modified strains escaping and becoming a problem. I pointed out that each proposed modification needs to be studied on its own merits. To flatly deny a tool can be useful because in some cases it might be dangerous is to deny the use of most tools and transport, which regularly kill people. We don’t ban cars, we carefully regulate and limit their use.

As for that specific case, it is an insecticide. That does not automatically mean it is dangerous to humans, partly because we have a different physiology to insects and partly because the dose makes the poison. This is how we use insecticides in our homes without worrying. It is a worry that it has made it into the blood stream and not been broken down, and means that that type of GM involved in introducing possibly dangerous chemicals needs to be investigated further. It does not say anything about other types of GM, such as the two examples I gave of golden rice and improving salt resistance.


Deb June 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm

In fact I’ll add one more problem to GMO – it tends to focus on very narrow solutions. Take golden rice, it’s a great and logical way to increase vitamin A and combat deficiencies. However would it be better to combat it in a lower tech way, such as encouraging the farming of a wider range of vegetables? I don’t know enough to answer, both have their drawbacks and the best answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Exactly the same can be said of producing herbicide resistant grains – could weeds be combated in a better way than more weedkillers? Plus you then have the corporate problems of being dependent on companies.

But I keep coming back to the Indian salt-resistant crops – traditional breeding would take years to achieve it, if it even could. Food is needed now.


Hamish Basso via Facebook June 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

Great reading. Thanks!


Lori Pott via Facebook June 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I was just thinking about this the other day! Great post. Thanks!


Science@home via Facebook June 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

It is fascinating to think about. We’re still making huge changes – selecting for things that are easily picked and store well. Now if we could go back to selecting for taste!


Xakara June 9, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for pointing out that whatever comes of GMOs, it’s something we’ve been doing since we’ve been an agricultural society. We’ve hit a few things out of the park and then we have moments of over-specialization and end up with mass famine. GMOs will be no different. Don’t get me started on companies holding farmers in bondage through seed distribution and patents. Sigh.

Thanks for all of the information!

Happy TT,

Wolf’s Glory


Deb June 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Yes, there are major ethical problems aren’t there.

When I was writing this I was wondering – does any major development actually happen without large companies and patents these days? I mean is there development happening at the farm level in the developing world? If there is, that’s brilliant and needs to be encouraged and supported. But if there isn’t, then practically it makes little difference whether it is GMOs or fertilisers, they are still ending up dependent on corporations.

Climate change is going to have a huge impact, there are already problems with the monsoons in India which will get worse as glaciers melt. And I’ve seen some very scary modelling in Africa that shows that conflict is strongly linked to temperature – as it gets hotter, there are more wars, and part of the pressure is because of food and water shortages.


CountryDew June 9, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Very informative and thought-provoking. I am not a fan of corporations and as a small farmer I find many of their activities abhorrent. At the same time I must acknowledge that they are feeding many more people. It’s a huge price to pay, though.
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Claire June 9, 2011 at 9:48 pm

I never thought that some of those had been modified. Do you think they just morphed over the years? Or would have even without the help of farmers?
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Deb June 9, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Things do change over time, they drift or there are selection pressures on them. The remarkable thing about most of these changes is that they are bad for the plant in a natural state – things like corn or commercial bananas cannot reproduce on their own and can only continue with farmers planting them, so they would become extinct.

What farmers have done is select the plants for unnatural things that are good for us, like losing the poison that protects them from insects so it’s better for us to eat them, or losing the seeds we don’t like so there is more flesh but they can’t reproduce.

The farmers didn’t do it on purpose, it’s just that they encourage and keep seeds of the plants they like and don’t keep seeds from the ones they don’t, so it gradually changes the plants.


jasmine June 10, 2011 at 1:41 am

To the victor go the spoils….Some plants win (by taste) some plants lose. Over time, we’ve mastered agriculture and farming. Yet still….we surrender ourselves to nature and hope we are being healthy, and productive in our farming.
I would like to see what your thoughts are on this…verticalfarm,com

I came upon this recently, and I believe it to be a great partial solution to the population/ consumption growth for the demand for food in the world.
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Valentina June 10, 2011 at 2:33 am

Wow, great information. I didn’t know how much we modified our plants. Crazy.



Jessi June 10, 2011 at 6:22 am

Wow, I had no idea. Thanks for sharing!


Bryan S June 10, 2011 at 7:08 am

Wow. Really amazing. I’m happy because in my whole life I’ve been getting to make new idea on searching different kind of plants. I can’t imagine when I see a black corn and a colorful carrots. Thank you so much for making this post.
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Harriet June 10, 2011 at 7:38 am

YUM! Those carrots look interesting!

Have a great day!


Adelle Laudan June 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Great post. I can’t imagine sinking my teeth into purple corn lol
Happy T13!


laura June 12, 2011 at 3:25 am

How about apples? All apple trees are grafted. Every apple seed will grow to be a different tasting apple. Tat would be a real long term science experiment- discovering a new tasty apple. 🙂


Deb June 12, 2011 at 10:20 am

I didn’t know all apples were grafted, grapes are too. It would be lovely to do a long term experiment like that. Basically every food we farm we have created in some way.


Rebecca June 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

Hi Deb!

I’m wondering if you could flick me your references? We’re looking at simplifying and trying to live from our owm land as much as possible so in between assignments I’m as much research on growing our own wholesome foods as I can, so would love to read up more on this… Thats so interesting about the corn and kinda makes sense too…


[Answered in email]


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