The divide between wild and domestic can be no wider than a fence post in parts of California. Along the 101 north of Santa Barbara, where fields alternate between grape vines, vegetables and cut flowers, the ditches are often dominated by towering stalks of fennel, whose clusters of small, wispy flowers are like a yellow haze hovering just past the shoulder.
Domesticated fennel is cultivated here too, and even zipping past an intentionally planted field offers a rich study in the contrast between the organization of agriculture and haphazard nature—the short, neat rows of fennel bulbs growing feet away from their feral cousins, their crowns head-high.
It’s unclear how wild fennel was introduced to California, but the California Invasive Plant Council says it has grown here for as long as 120 years, “and is presumed to have escaped from cultivation repeatedly.” The folk history says the plant was brought to the West Coast by Italian immigrants way back when, and was originally cultivated for culinary purposes before it hopped into the chaparral.
Regardless of the who and how, it’s clear that in the case of fennel, the “wild” side of the fence has flipped over the decades. So if you’re interested in Eating on the Wild Side, as the author of a forthcoming book of that title, Jo Robinson, advocated for in an op-ed for the New York Times on Sunday, which side of the fence should you be eating from?
The argument Robinson puts forth in the opinion piece, titled “Breeding The Nutrition Out of Our Food,” is that, “Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.”
Her case study is the evolution of corn, which she tracks from multicolored, nutritious Amerindian staple to its modern sweet-corn guise, which, when composed of 40 percent sugar in some instances, is not hyperbolically referred to as candy. Robinson tells the astonishing story of how we arrived upon these sugar factories: How seeds were manipulated by “exposing them to X-rays, toxic compounds, cobalt radiation and then, in the 1940s, to blasts of atomic radiation.” Many modern sweet corn hybrids are descendants of those nuked kernels.
This nuclear wrinkle may be an astounding addition to what has become a familiar narrative about corn’s fall from grace (see: Pollan, Michael), but Robinson’s solution is problematic. She suggests that in order to recoup the losses after “we’ve reduced the nutrients and increased the sugar and starch content of hundreds of other fruits and vegetables,” we should eat varieties that are more like their wild cousins: blue corn meal, yellow-kernelled sweet corn, scallions, herbs. These foods may be higher in phytonutrients, but suggesting that their inherent wildness is to thank for the better nutrition is like agricultural orientalism.
She qualifies the wildness of arugula, another suggested food, by noting, “some varieties were domesticated as recently as the 1970s, thousands of years after most fruits and vegetables had come under our sway.” Other varieties, however, have been cultivated long enough that the genus name, eruca, was coined by Pliny the Elder, who wrote about arugula in Natural History—which was published circa AD 77. Some cultivars have significantly more bite than others—like the domesticated variety confusingly known as “wild” arugula— the bitterness suggestive of more phytonutrients, according to Robinson. And those newly domesticated arugulas she champions undoubtedly bear the genetic history of seeds selected by farmers—whether during the reign of Charlemagne or in post-unification Italy—as the plant readily self-hybridizes.
Robinson also points readers towards herbs, making the blanket statement, “herbs are wild plants incognito.” What types of herbs? Parsley and basil both get a nod—and they’ve been cultivated for approximately 2,000 and 5,000 years, respectively. How, exactly, they’ve managed to clandestinely remain wild for such a long stretch of human history is beyond me—especially when you consider that there are more than 30 distinct cultivars grown around the world, and that the country we most strongly associate the flavor with, Italy, is not basil’s native home. Basil is originally from India, but it’s been farmed in the Mediterranean since the time of Nero.
In the era of GMO labeling law battles, seed-patent Supreme Court cases, and the Monsanto Protection Act, it’s easy and understandable to decry people for messing with nature. But non-GMO farming doesn’t look like agriculture on a sort of Paleo Diet—a return to foraging or something close to it. Thousands of years of domestication hasn’t ruined the so-called wild plants Robinson recommends eating; similarly, plant breeding is not a ruinous effort either.
The problem with lumping hybrids in with transgene crops are myriad, but one breeding effort by the man whose work led the U.S. government to allow plants to be patented (which isn’t the same as patenting individual genes), Luther Burbank, offers a concise rebuttal to Robinson’s “wild” argument. The Burbank Tomato, released by the prolific plant breeder in 1915, has some of the highest levels of free amino acids of any tomato variety—non-hybrid heirloom or otherwise.