Our Evolutionary Partners

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Like us, most of our food plants are relative newcomers to the earth. Life arose about 4 billion years ago, but flowering plants have been around for only about 200 million years, and dominant for the last 50 million. An even more recent development is the “herbaceous” habit of life. Most food plants are not long-lived trees, but relatively small, delicate plants that produce their seeds and die in one growing season. This herbaceous habit gives plants greater flexibility in adapting to changing conditions, and it has worked to our advantage as well. It allows us to grow crops to maturity in a few months, change plantings from year to year, rapidly breed new varieties, and eat plant parts that would be inedible were they toughened to endure for years. Herbaceous plants became widespread only in the last few million years, just as the human species was emerging. They made possible our rapid cultural development, and we in turn have used selection and breeding to direct their biological development. We and our food plants have been partners in each other’s evolution.