History of agriculture and food has always been the result of constant attempts and innovation, as the impact of beetroot on sugar production and price has shown in the past, write three Italian researchers.
Francesca Marzorati, Alessia Midali and Piero Morandini are researchers at the University of Milan.
An aphorism, attributed to Oscar Wilde, states that “tradition is a successful innovation”. This statement is particularly true when referring to agriculture and especially food.
Think about how many meals in Italian cuisine have tomatoes, potatoes or corn. Yet, these three crops, along with many others, were completely unknown until the discovery of America.
Since then, it took many years before the fruits from these plants were introduced into the diet and incorporated into many dishes that are now considered traditional.
The same goes for rice, originating in China, or for wheat, used for both pasta and bread, coming from the Middle East.
There are countless examples to cite supporting the fact that the history of agriculture and food has always been the result of constant attempts and innovation.
In order to highlight one of the consequences of the attitude to innovate rather than listing crops incorporated into our tradition, it is interesting to tell the story of one of them in detail, sugar beet, which descends from the beet first cultivated by the ancient Romans.
Sugar was considered a spice in the Middle Ages. It arrived in Europe from Asia and its price, in the middle of the 15th century, was such that an English master carpenter, using the entire daily pay could buy only 200 grams.
For the same pay, however, he could buy about 50 litres of beer or almost 400 kilograms of coal.
The consumption of sugar was to be considered an almost exclusive the prerogative of the wealthy classes, while the lower middle classes certainly could not afford to spend so much money to buy this “spice”.
If we take into consideration a carpenter of our times, with the daily pay he can afford to buy about 50 kilograms of sugar.
One question arises: why has the price of sugar fallen so sharply in the space of 500 years compared to many other consumer products?
Why the sugar price fell
In the late Middle Ages sugar was produced in the East from a cane, called “sugar cane”, but the yields were very low.
This was due to the fact that the process for its purification was carried out only on a small scale and in an inefficient artisanal way.
In the mid-1700s Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, discovered that the root of the fodder beet also contained sucrose (cooking sugar), albeit in modest quantities.
The factor that unleashed human inventiveness was the naval blockade imposed by England during the Napoleonic wars.
This event pushed the Europeans to look for new sources of sugar, so they began to refine its purification from beet.
In the space of 200 years, human intelligence applied to genetic improvement through crossbreeding and selection has succeeded both in increasing the sugar content of the single beetroot from 5 to 20% and the size of the beets themselves.
Human intelligence has therefore introduced innovations applicable to agronomic practices such as mechanisation of processing, sowing density and fertilization, as well as industrial extraction process.
Thanks to these innovations, it has been possible to increase beet production and the efficiency of the extraction and refining process, reducing costs.
In Napoleon’s time, seven quintals of sugar [700kg] were obtained globally from one hectare of land, while an average of 130 quintals is reached today, as productivity has increased almost 20 times.
These yields can still be improved, reaching 260 quintals as maximum yield in the most profitable soils, which is double the current average.
This result had as a direct consequence on the fall in the price of sugar, which is no longer considered an elite commodity, but as a primary consumer commodity accessible to the entire population.
All this would not have been possible if so many people had not dedicated time and energy to improving the various aspects of production – from the plant to the cultivation, harvesting, extraction and refining of sugar.
There are not only people with their intelligence and experience behind these inventions and improvements but also industries that have invested resources and rightly expect an economic return.
For example, we can mention the seed companies that produce hybrid beet seed, which is complicated to obtain but particularly productive, or the sugar factories that work at a frantic pace millions of tons of beets in the few weeks after harvesting, because our climate does not allow them to be stored once grubbed up.
Without dedicated people and industry, the price of sugar would still be comparable to the price of spices such as saffron, which in the Middle Ages cost only ten times more than sugar and is still today very expensive at around tens of thousands of euros per kilogram.
The low price of sugar certainly makes easier to consume it immoderately, and this also applies to many foods with high-calorie content, whose abuse involves health risks.
However, this problem must be tackled through education on a healthy diet, pushing for a proper exercise of individual freedom that avoids harmful excesses, without going back in time when people ate little sugar because it was only affordable by the rich.
Innovation in the plant sector has focused not only on increasing productivity but also on improving quality.
An example literally within everyone’s reach regards the new vegetable oils, already on sale on supermarket shelves today.
The reason for this innovation is that many vegetable oils contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are more prone to oxidation and rancidity over time, especially when heated during frying.
In order to avoid this, catalytic hydrogenation was used in the past (for over a hundred years!), which reduces the content of polyunsaturated fatty acids and thus makes vegetable fats more stable.
However, this process tends to generate trans fatty acids, which are considered unhealthy today because they are risk factors for some chronic diseases.
In order to improve the characteristics of vegetable oils, genetics was used in past decades mainly by selecting those combinations of genes that lead to oils rich in “good” fatty acids, like monounsaturated oils such as oleic acid, and poor in polyunsaturated oils.
This is the case, for example, of sunflower oil with a high oleic acid content, obtained by crossing and sorting. Other vegetable oils (e.g. soybean and rapeseed), improved through metabolic engineering, are also available in other countries.
This process allows their composition to be altered in a more specific and predictable way than classical genetic improvement by crossing and selection, although both approaches ‘touch’ the genes.
Many other examples could be given to show how innovation has improved the quality of crops and products, for example by reducing contamination by toxins or dangerous microorganisms.
In addition, it has allowed the development of seedless fruit, improving the edibility and density of the food and, finally, it has been able to improve both the nutritional characteristics, taste or stability of many products, for example through process innovation, and the diet, making fresh fruit and vegetables available at all times.
Modern genetic innovation
A final consideration concerns the current climate of suspicion against innovation in agriculture and especially against modern genetic improvement techniques.
If we had had the same attitude towards innovation, especially genetic innovation, as we do today, we would probably not have seen the spectacular increases in production that have taken place over the last century, not only in beet but in almost all crops, starting with maize, wheat, rice and barley.
It is senseless to discriminate from a normative point of view between modern methods and ancient methods or spontaneous mutations.
First of all, because all three introduce new characteristics using the same basic logic, i.e. by addition, elimination or fusion of genes or their fragments.
Second, it is even more senseless to place endless restrictions on the products obtained by the application of modern methods, since they make it possible to obtain much more precise and circumscribed modifications, which are carried out consciously and not as a result of chance.
Here too, just one example is sufficient: a few years ago, an Australian researcher managed to double the carbohydrate content of sugar cane by inserting a single bacterial gene.
The cane accumulated not only sucrose but also comparable amounts of isomaltulose, a more valuable and also healthier sugar.
The result – which has yet to be replicated under cultivation conditions – would represent a real step forward, a considerable innovation. Can we turn it into tradition?