Our ancestors went out to hunt and gather food. Later, people increasingly manipulated food production so that they were no longer dependent on what nature brought them. Food production has undergone significant development. Microorganisms and genetic knowledge play a big role here.
Breeding (10,000 BC)
Our ancestors collected seeds, bulbs and tubers to eat and replant.
We travel more than twelve thousand years back in time; it is about ten thousand years before Christ. The first nomads founded villages in areas where edible plants grow in abundance. They collect seeds, bulbs and tubers from these plants. Initially for eating, but later also as stock to sow or plant the following year. The farmers always choose the best, prettiest or biggest seeds, tubers or bulbs. These come from plants that grew best and produced many offspring, and therefore had favorable genes. This is how our ancestors filter out weaker plants, such as were susceptible to disease. Without knowing it, they breed.
Fermentation (7000 BC)
It is seven thousand years before Christ. The crops that people grow and choose are better adapted to the growing environment and people’s tastes. There is more and more food in stock. But how do you prevent that stock from going moldy or rotting away? Our ancestors begin to discover that some microorganisms make their food and drink last longer. This is called fermentation. Benign bacteria, fungi and yeasts convert sugar in food into other substances. This prevents other, possibly pathogenic, microorganisms from growing on it. In addition, fermentation gives food a different taste and smell. Just think of yogurt, cheese and wine. At this time, the Chinese make a kind of rice wine from fermented rice, honey and fruit. Three thousand years later, the Egyptians use yeast to make bread and beer.
Cross crops (19e century)
By crossing two plants, the genetics of the two are mixed.
We travel a long way forward, to the nineteenth century. People grow crops on a large scale. However, there are sometimes difficult problems. For example, one plant produces a lot of fruit, but another is tastier. The farmers would prefer to get these two properties in one facility. The monk Gregor Mendel unravels the laws of inheritance, and other scientists discover that plants practice sexual reproduction: male reproductive organs fertilize a female organ. Researchers can also perform this process manually. They then choose which two plants to cross with each other. In this way, hereditary traits are mixed in one offspring, resulting in new genetic combinations. As a plant that produces many and tasty fruits.
Quickly make genetic adjustments (20e century)
A century later, people are still combining the properties of crops. The disadvantage is that it is only possible to combine traits if breeders have plants in their hands that possess the desired traits. But what if the farmers want something completely new? A fruit in a new colour, e.g. Then you have to look for a long time and cross a lot. It takes quite a long time. Two biologists discover that when they irradiate or treat plants with a chemical substance, random mutations occur in the plant’s DNA. This also happens in nature, but less often. This treatment means that plants develop new properties more quickly. For example, it is still a long search for a plant with the right trait, but as long as breeders process many plants at the same time, they are more likely to find that one trait.
Modify DNA in a targeted manner (21e century)
In 2022, we will have more knowledge about our food in relation to biotechnology. We now know that microorganisms are responsible for fermentation and that the DNA of living things determines their properties. We have also read the entire DNA code of humans and many other living creatures, including our (vegetable) food. Scientists know from DNA fragments exactly what they do and what characteristics they impart to a crop. With modern techniques, scientists can tweak that DNA, for example the piece of DNA that determines the size, color or nutritional value of a fruit. To do this, they use techniques like CRISPR-Cas, molecular scissors that cut and edit DNA. With this technique, they no longer need to check large quantities of plants to see if they happen to have the right mutation.
Small pieces of DNA visualized on a gel. In this way, the researchers check whether a plant actually has the mutation they had in mind.
So our food and biotechnology have been linked for a long time. As knowledge of biotechnology continues to grow, food production will also evolve. However, it is not always easy. For example, in the EU, CRISPR-Cas is not allowed outside a laboratory. In other countries, such as Japan, this is allowed. Since 2021, the first tomatoes processed with CRISPR-Cas have been in the supermarkets there. Society and politics influence how our food production changes. Some people have no problem crossing plants, but are afraid of the consequences of genetically modified food. Where do you draw the line?