The Influence of Modern Technology

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The age of exploration and the advancement of fine cooking brought a new prominence to fruits and vegetables in Europe. Then the social and technical innovations of the industrial age conspired to make them both less available and less desirable. Beginning early in the 19th century, as industrialization drew people from the agricultural countryside to the cities, fruits and vegetables became progressively rarer in the diets of Europe and North America. Urban supplies did improve with the development of rail transportation in the 1820s, then canning at mid-century, and refrigeration a few decades later. Around the turn of the 20th century, vitamins and their nutritional significance were discovered, and fruits and vegetables were soon officially canonized as one of the four food groups that should be eaten at every meal. Still, the consumption of fresh produce continued to decline through much of the 20th century, at least in part because its quality and variety were also declining. In the modern system of food production, with crops being handled in massive quantities and shipped thousands of miles, the most important crop characteristics became productivity, uniformity, and durability. Rather than being bred for flavor and harvested at flavor’s peak, fruits and vegetables were bred to withstand the rigors of mechanical harvesting, transport, and storage, and were harvested while still hard, often weeks or months before they would be sold and eaten. A few mediocre varieties came to dominate the market, while thousands of others, the legacy of centuries of breeding, disappeared or survived only in backyard gardens.