Volume 8 Issue 1 Spring-Summer 2023
By Jack McCoy, PHD
hen I think of the word “broadcasting”, my mind does not immediately conjure television, radio, antennae etc. like it might for many readers. Rather, I first think of a freshly prepared agricultural field and a farmer scattering seed, either by hand or behind an industrial-sized tractor. Having spent the entirety of my career in academia, I have been trained to consider my words deeply and use them with intention. Thus, I went back to the definition of this word, “broadcast”. Dictionary.com lists these three definitions, among others:
1. To transmit programs from a radio or television station
2. To cast or scatter abroad over an area, as seed in sowing.
3. To spread widely; disseminate
For Mother-Kerry and the rest of the BRAVE magazine staff, it is surely this first definition that was the original inspiration for this edition; however, I would like to focus on these last two definitions. As a plant scientist concentrating in plant breeding and genetics, a single seed holds great value to me. Within it holds all the genetic material and storage reserves to generate an entire new plant, and subsequently thousands of other plants, generation after generation. Agriculture is also an excellent example of this third definition. Since the onset of agriculture over 10,000 years ago, humans have been collecting seed, disseminating information across communities and generations, and spreading key species wider than could have ever been possible under natural evolutionary forces. With it, we have generated completely man-made versions of wild progenitors, fed increasingly more people, and influenced cultural cuisine worldwide. Chile pepper, along with many other crops, is an example of the tremendous impact humanity has had on broadcasting food and culture, and how it is truly BRAVE to preserve our agricultural diversity.
When I first began studying chile pepper at the Chile Pepper Institute within New Mexico State University, I did not have a true appreciation for this plant and the spicy, flavorful fruit it produces. Anyone who has spent time in New Mexico can tell you, red or green chile is on every corner: every menu, not just on your enchiladas, but also on your burgers or in your beer and wine, and even roasting outside your grocery stores every Fall, filling the entire town with the aroma of fresh roasted chile. New Mexico is the only state in the country with a State Question (that is, “Red or Green?”). Up until this point, I had not thought much about the influence our food has on us, though it seems obvious now. For example, in the South, we have fried okra and all kinds of BBQ, Cajun poboys andgumbo, and much more. All of which, I must mention, are influenced in their own unique way by the chile pepper, but I digress. What we eat is defined, in a major way, by where we came from and where we are. Now, I’m sure it is no surprise that our food is based in various cultures, such as that of the hundreds of nationalities, ethnicities, and localized groups that have developed their own eating habits, which is especially evident in the diversity and fusion of cuisine found in most American cities today. What is particularly interesting to me, is the individual items going into these dishes and how they found their way to our plate.
The chile pepper (Capsicum sp.) likely originated around the Andean region of South America, with subsequent diversifying species evolution throughout Latin America. The wild counterpart of the domesticated pepper has fruit no larger than your pinky nail, and originally evolved to be consumed and dispersed by birds. The onset of domestication in the Americas resulted in new shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors to accommodate the growing medicinal and food use of indigenous communities. Christopher Columbus is thought to have disseminated the pepper to the rest of the world after his arrival to the Americas, certainly in an unethical and uninformed way (but that is for another article). In fact, the small round berries and pungent taste reminded him of the peppercorn, which was already widely used in Europe, so he assumed these were also “pepper”. In reality, chile pepper and black pepper come from widely different families within the plant kingdom, but the name stuck. After this globalization of the plant, we see a re-diversification in some ways of the chile pepper. Many Asian and African cuisines, are defined by there unique spicy attributes (Indian curry anyone?), of which only emerged after chile pepper was broadcast and adopted worldwide. This phenomena of globalization and diversification can be observed in virtually all of our domesticated plants. The tomato, a notoriously Italian food item, also originated in the Americas and was not introduced to the country until after European exploration as well. Agricultural diversity, a product of human civilization, is also crucial to the sustainability of human civilization.
With the broadcasting of agricultural commodities inadvertently brings with it a broadcasting of pest and disease that threaten our ability to produce food. Diversity is also crucial to our resilience to these threats. Chile pepper demonstrates a great diversity of beautiful fruit morphology, but less obvious to the naked eye is the diversity of adaptations to various environments or resistances to pest and disease. It is this diversity that is preserved and explored by farmers and plant scientists, like me, that ensure our ability to continue producing food in a world with increasingly more challenges.
I’d like to end with a BRAVE story on preserving our agricultural biodiversity. In the first half of the 20th century, an extremely influential Russian scientist named Nikolai Vavilov developed the concept of crop “Centers of Origin” highlighting regions of the world possessing wild progenitors of our domesticated crops and thus higher biodiversity (versions of this model we still accept today). Along with this, he had a strong passion and drive for the collection and preservation of crops and their wild relatives across the world for use in crop improvement and agricultural resilience. Under his direction a team of scientists developed the first modern gene bank for preservation of diversity, of which there are hundreds like it today (the USDA has ~19 separate gene banks with thousands of species). In 1941, the German army sieged the city of Leningrad, where the gene bank was located, and widespread destruction and famine ensued. During this time the scientists responsible for managing the gene bank took to guarding their library of seeds. Despite being surrounded by grain, they chose to starve to death before compromising the precious resources, they’d spent their lives preserving. Now THAT is commitment. So next time you sit down to dinner, consider the diversity on your plate and what it might have taken to get there. We all owe thanks to indigenous farmers, passionate growers, and devoted plant scientists that keep our food on the table.
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