Most of the plants and animals we raise for food barely resemble their wild ancestors; they have been dramatically changed by humans. Thousands of years ago, for instance, there was no maize (also called corn)—today’s massive cobs were bred from a wild grass. Through selective breeding, we have made foods bigger, easier to store, and more resistant to pests and disease. We’ve altered flavor, yield, and much more, breeding countless new plant and animal varieties specifically adapted to our needs.
Farmers think quite a bit about increasing “yield”—getting as much food as possible from a particular crop or livestock. A high yield depends on more than just size. If a plant grows very fast and can be planted multiple times in one year—or can be grown closer to its neighbors—yield goes up. Farmers also look for plants and animals that are more resistant to pests, disease, and extreme weather. Over time, humans have used selective breeding to tweak many traits such as these to increase yields.
Size and Shape
When it comes to many foods, bigger often seems better. A large apple will sell for a higher price than a smaller one, for instance. Thanks to selective breeding, farmers have modified many foods so that whatever parts are eaten—whether the leaves of some plants or the tails of
some animals—are now much larger than in their wild ancestors.
A plant or animal is no use to humans if it can’t survive where we want to raise it. So people have bred thousands of new varieties specifically adapted to the locations where they are grown.
It’s all about the flavor. Once people learned to modify their foods through selective breeding, one obvious goal was to create pleasing flavors—whether by growing an extra spicy pepper or a super-sweet apple or carrot.
Ways of Growing
More than one billion people work in agriculture today. Whether raising oysters off the coast of France, planting maize in Kenya, or simply gathering wild food, people use varied and ingenious methods to feed their families, their neighbors—and often, strangers on the other side of the world.
Whether food comes from small family plots or large-scale commercial farms, every system of agriculture presents both opportunities and challenges.
Find out about various ways of farming around the world, including subsistence farming, urban agriculture, aquaculture, and large-scale commercial farming, in Our Global Kitchen.
Vertical Gardens: Windowfarms
Visit a display of Windowfarms in Our Global Kitchen and see a vertical garden in the Museum's Weston Pavilion, located inside the Museum entrance on Columbus Avenue and 79th Street.
Can you grow food year-round, even in the winter? Can you garden in a tiny, city apartment? Yes…and yes!
The living plants in the vertical garden included in Our Global Kitchen are edible greens, mostly lettuce and kale. They grow indoors, hydroponically—that is, without soil. Their roots derive nutrients from fortified water, which continuously drips through the system in a low-energy cycle. It requires technology, but without the need for soil, hydroponic gardeners can grow food almost anywhere, even in the desert or outer space. Pest and weed control is easy.
The plants displayed in the exhibition gallery are under artificial grow lamps that nourish them through the night. But all plants need some natural light. So they will rotate with plants in a larger exhibition in the Museum’s sun-filled Weston Pavilion.
The structures were developed by Windowfarms, a company based in New York City that supports urban agriculture.
Why do we need variety? Your local grocery store or farmers’ market may seem like a cornucopia of amazing foods—more diverse than ever before. But is it? There are thousands of plant species that are edible to humans, but we actually use only a small portion for food.
And while the shelves may be full of meat, milk and eggs, these come from just a few breeds of livestock; many others are in danger of becoming extinct. So farmers and scientists are developing creative methods, from community and international seed “banks” to habitat and on-farm conservation, to protect plant and animal diversity.
Supporting Native Habitat
Conserving land is a critically important way to maintain plant diversity.Parque de la Papa(Potato Park), comprising 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) and six villages in the Peruvian Andes, aims to sustain the native habitats—and traditional growing methods—for about 900 varieties of potato.
Global Seed Supply
Nestled in underground chambers built into permafrost on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, the Global Seed Vault can store up to 4.5 million unique seed samples from food crops and their related wild species. Those seeds are a backup supply, in case politics, war, climate change or other factors cut off access to those stored in less-remote seedbanks.
A seedbank for animals? Yes! At the SVF Foundation, in Newport, Rhode Island, veterinarians are creating a library of frozen semen and embryos from endangered breeds. The foundation could later revive these breeds, including this curly-horned Jacob Sheep, should they become extinct. How? The embryos would be transferred to other, living animals, which would act as surrogates. But conserving species this way is not easy—or cheap.