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Love avocados? Thank the toxodon
Avocado evolved in the warming climates of Central America during the Neogene period, roughly 10 million years ago.
Given avocado's popularity today, it's hard to believe that we came close to not having them in our supermarkets at all.
In my new book “Avocado: A Global History," I explain how the avocado survived a series of ecological and cultural close calls that could have easily relegated them to extinction or niche delicacy. Instead, the avocado persevered, prospered – and became one of the most Instagrammed foods in the world.
A 'ghost of evolution'
Avocados are in the laurel family, the same group of plants that includes bay leaves and cinnamon. Laurel trees prosper in warm subtropical climates, and the avocado evolved in the warming climates of Central America during the Neogene period, roughly 10 million years ago.
During the Pleistocene era, which followed the Neogene, the biggest animals on Earth were what we call the megaherbivores – giant animals that subsisted almost entirely on a vegetarian diet. Most of these, like the giant ground sloth, would have dwarfed today's largest megaherbivore, the African elephant. The giant herbivores of Pleistocene Mesoamerica like the gomphothere, the giant armadillo and the toxodon needed hundreds of pounds of food a day just to survive. Since food like leaves and grasses are so low in calories and fat, the animals prized any energy dense and fatty foods.
Enter: the avocado.
Megaherbivores didn't peel the avocados and eat the green meat like we do today. Instead, their throats and digestive tracts were so large that they would simply swallow the avocado whole and excrete the undigested pit. In a process known as endozoochory, the pile of manure would serve as food for the next generation of avocado trees. As these giant animals roamed and grazed on avocados, they spread the fruit across what is now central Mexico.
Megaherbivores like the toxodon were the avocado's best friend. (Robert Bruce Horsfall/Wikimedia Commons)
But once the megaherbivores died off, the fruit was in a bind. The herbivores that were left had throats far too small to ingest a whole avocado seed, and dropping a giant seed at your own roots is a poor survival strategy for a tree; to thrive, it needs to disperse more broadly.
Avocados became what the botanist Connie Barlow calls a "Ghost of Evolution" – a species that should have gone extinct but was somehow able to survive. What the avocado had going for it was the lifespan of its trees, which survive much longer than most fruit trees. There are 100-year-old trees still producing fruit in California and 400-year-old trees in central Mexico.
By living so long and being so well adapted to their ecological niche, avocados were able to hold on until their next dispersers – Homo sapiens – came along.
More stops and starts
The earliest humans in Mesoamerica were quick to appreciate the virtues of the avocado. Groups like the Olmecs and the Maya started the first avocado orchards and began cultivating specimens that tasted the best and had the meatiest fruits, a process of trait selection that gave us the kinds of avocados we love today. Avocados were so important to the Maya that the 14th month of their calendar was named for them.
In the 1830s, Floridian Dr. Henry Perrine was introduced to avocados while serving as U.S. consul in Campeche, Mexico, and thought they would be an excellent addition to Florida's horticultural offerings.
He sent some seeds to a friend on Indian Key in Florida who planted them. Not long after Perrine returned, the Second Seminole War broke out. Perrine and his family sought shelter from the fighting on the key, but he was killed during a raid on the island by one of the warring factions. The island was abandoned and the avocado trees were forgotten.
Hot and humid Florida had been hospitable to the avocado, but California has enough cold snaps in the winter months to make it difficult for most avocado varieties to thrive there. This could have been another dead end for the fruit, but early settlers in California took another stab at establishing them in the U.S. After a few failed attempts in the 1850s and 1860s, grower Judge R. B. Ord obtained a few cold-hardy specimens from central Mexico. A cold-tolerant variety was needed if California was to have a profitable avocado industry. Without it, the avocado might have remained a delicacy local to Mexico and its neighbors.
One of the earliest cold-hardy specimens was a variety given the name "Fuerte," which means "strong" in Spanish. The Fuerte avocado earned its name because it was one of the few varieties that survived the famous "Freeze of '13," a spell of cold weather that nearly ruined the nascent fruit industries of Southern California in the winter of 1913.
Until the 1940s, the Fuerte was the most popular avocado variety in America and made up about 75% of avocados sold.
The Hass comes to pass
The Fuerte has since been relegated to niche product, and represent only about 2% of the California market. Instead, the lion's share of avocados sold today are the variety known as Hass, which rhymes with "pass."
But were it not for a couple of kids with precocious palates, the world may never have tasted a Hass avocado, with the fruit remaining an odd delicacy for the well-to-do.
The Hass avocado is named for Rudolph Hass, a mailman who lived in La Habra, California. Originally from Milwaukee, Hass joined the thousands of Americans who went west to California in the 1920s and 1930s.
After reading a brochure about the money to be made in avocado ranching, he borrowed enough money to buy a small plot of land with Fuerte avocado trees on it. In the late 1920s, Hass bought some avocado seeds to grow rootstock for his budding nursery. One of these seeds grew a funny tree that rejected the Fuerte limbs that Hass wanted to graft onto it – a process that involves combining two tree plants with distinct characteristics. He was about to cut the misbehaving tree out, but his kids told him that these odd little avocados were their favorites, so he relented and kept the tree. After trying them himself, he thought they had marketing potential and began selling them to people at work and at a market in town.
Hass avocados slowly caught on, and in 1935 Hass patented the tree, the first patent awarded for a tree in America. But most growers, instead of buying his tree, evaded his patent and simply grafted their cuttings themselves. This practice was illegal, but enforcement in the 1930s was spotty.
Today, Americans eat 100 million pounds of avocados on Super Bowl Sunday, and Hass should have died a rich man. But he never earned enough to quit the post office, and it's estimated that he only made about US$5,000 on the patent in his lifetime.
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Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.