Luther Burbank, The Maker of Modern Agriculture

Food Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Luther Burbank, The Maker of Modern Agriculture

A lot of people, even self-proclaimed foodies, do not know who Luther Burbank was. I find this odd not only because of his legacy, an almost supernaturally prolific career in plant breeding that gave us many of the foods we eat today, but because in his lifetime the man was the horticultural equivalent of a rock star, and counted among his admirers Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John Muir, and Helen Keller. Burbank was charismatic, brilliant, tireless, and despite an elementary school education, possessed of an almost mystical ability to conjure plant life. Everyone knew who he was.

Burbank was born in Lancaster, Mass., in 1849. He was the 13th of 18 children. After the death of his father he used his inheritance to purchase a few farm acres and went to work on developing a potato that would have a natural resistance to the blight that sparked the catastrophic crop failures in mind-19th century Ireland. The result was the Idaho or Burbank Russet, which is now one of our dominant agricultural crops and the source of practically every French fry you have ever eaten. He moved to northern California, where the growing season was longer, with the money he made selling the rights to the Burbank Russet.

It sold for $150. If that sounds wild to you, don’t worry—it did to him, as well. As it turns out, there are serious difficulties with making money as an inventor when your inventions are living, reproducing plants. More on that in a minute.

A lot of scientists will tell you that horticulturalist Luther Burbank was not one. In a way, I think that’s probably right—and he might not have minded the exclusion, though it bothered him when people called him a “wizard.” (He felt it smacked of “hocus-pocus,” which he’d have hastened to note was not his thing either.) A devoted acolyte of Darwin, he happened to be a non-scientist who developed over 800 varieties of plants in a 50-year career. Many of them never went to market, some became unfashionable and faded away, some—like the white blackberry and the spineless prickly pear—were flops. But he’s the man you can thank not only for Idaho potatoes, but also for the pluot, most of the plums you’ve ever eaten (including the ubiquitous Japanese hybrid Santa Rosa), rainbow Swiss chard, red sorrel, and a huge number of apples, pears, peaches and nuts.

Luther Burbank standing on porch home Santa Rosa 1910.jpg
Luther Burbank at his home, Santa Rosa, California, circa 1910. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

If we look at the evolution of Western natural history, we see a pretty clear division that probably begins somewhere around first century Rome and definitely hits full acceleration in the Renaissance. Two paradigms emerge where the study of natural philosophy is concerned (in fact the term “scientist” wasn’t even coined until the 19th century). On the one hand, there are the descendants of Bacon and Descartes, Empiricism, the sons and daughters of statistics and the double-blind study—in other words, the brand of scientific inquiry that holds sway over most of the sciences in the modern United States.

That wasn’t Burbank by a long mile.

Burbank belonged to the school of the oddball mavericks I will call “Orphics” as opposed to Cartesians or Baconians. Not coincidentally, Orpheus was not a real person, but a powerful figure in Greek mythology—a superbard whose singing and lyre playing could charm gods, move mountains and rivers, and cause trees and flowers to spring from the ground. “Orphic” thinkers are (and were) not scientists in the Baconian sense. They were intuitives, embracers of metaphor. Some of them kept better notes than others; some were better funded than others. Some were burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. But these people made many of the quantum leaps in our understanding of how the natural world works. Giordano Bruno and Carolus Linnaeus, Paracelsus and Swedenborg, Darwin and Rudolph Steiner—and certainly, whatever you want to put on his business card, Luther Burbank.

For whatever reason, Burbank had an affinity for plants, for understanding both what they were and what they could be. He was keenly aware of the subtle contracts trees and grains and flowers made with birds, insects, and other animals, including humans—how they tended to “advertise” for pollenizers by enticing them with sugar or perfume or bright colors in order to keep their genes alive. He was a preternaturally diligent laborer. He was also a notoriously crappy note-taker, which earned him the disdain of much of the scientific community as well as the revoking of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Not everyone was seduced by his “wizardry.”

He used cross-breeding, grafting, June-budding, hybridizing and selection techniques to create everything from quinces and chestnuts to a scented calla lily to a walnut that grew furniture-grade hardwood twice as fast as its ancestors. He bred artichokes and cardoons, sorghum and quinoa, pineapple guavas and cane berries. He was interested in fruit trees and animal fodder, tropical plants and temperate ones, ornamentals and edibles. He was interested in beauty and abundance for their own sakes and he was interested in plant inventions that stood to improve the quality of life for humans; promoting access and diversity, and solutions to food supply and hunger crises. He was, by all accounts, interested in just about everything. Hundreds of species and cultivars owe their existence to Luther Burbank, and there are uncountable numbers that might have briefly existed and been lost.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 4.07.05 PM.png

Despite all this industry, all this innovation, and the adoration of friends and strangers alike, Burbank was a little bitter about one aspect of his work. It was hard to make a buck—and this might be why his name is so much less well-known than those of his longtime friends Ford and Edison. There were no intellectual property protections in place for plant breeders. It was certain that Burbank and other innovating plant breeders were “making” things. But they were living things that had the ability to self-replicate in someone else’s hands. Toward the end of his life Burbank became more and more outspoken about the unmotivating and unfair conditions under which he labored, but it wasn’t until four years after his death that his agitations (assisted in no small part by Thomas Edison) led to the passing of the 1930 Plant Patent Act.

The Plant Patent Act allowed patent rights for new plants that were not sexually reproduced (Fruit trees such as apples are generally propagated asexually, by grafting, to ensure that offspring are identical to parent). Interestingly, it had a specific exclusion for tuber-propagated plants—like potatoes. Over time, patent protection has been extended to cover sexually-reproduced plants, micro-organisms, it expanded to cover sexually-reproduced plants, and genes.

lutherb seed catalog.jpg
Luther Burbank Seed Book. Photo via Biodiversity Heritage Library CC BY

The point of the Plant Patent Act was to encourage and protect innovation in plant breeding. Burbank himself was firmly in favor of it and many of his admirers hoped patent protections would create “more Burbanks,” as Edison put it, just as Burbank had created more roses, more apples, more plums. Of course, it is also what paved the way for the legislation that has made possible companies like Monsanto and ADM. It’s hard to say whether Burbank could have foreseen the massive technological leaps and corporatization of farming that we live with today or what he would have made of some of the outcomes: seed patenting being used to exact royalties from farmers, or penalize them for propagating their own plants, for example. Or, the creation of some botanical Frankensteins that are now churning billable hours for attorneys in all 50 states and across the planet. (Litigation on GMOs flies in both directions; I do not have firm data on whether more litigation is brought by GMO agriculture companies or against them, but it is certain that the acronym “GMO” makes a lot of eyeballs twitch.) Humans have genetically modified plants for millennia—not to mention animals. And this is where we get into questions much spinier than the paddle cactus that obsessed Burbank.

Burbank was by all accounts one of the good guys; a jovial, modest, generous spirit and a man wildly in love with the work of plant breeding. He revered the natural world, had an inquisitive mind and a tirelessly experimental nature. He wanted to expand the diversity of plant species (edible and ornamental) not only to benefit human beings and their ecosystems but, as is amply evident from his writings, for the pure joy of seeing new forms express themselves. (Mission accomplished, to the nth, on both fronts.) Some of his species have remained extraordinarily important commercial crops. Calling him the father of modern agriculture isn’t, in my opinion, going too far—and the fact that modern agriculture is a bit of a problem child is certainly not an outcome of Dad having been a moustache-twiddling evildoer. Yet his career and his legacy do leave one wondering about the sketchy, blurry, difficult lines between innovating and manipulating, between natural and unnatural, between protection and monopoly—and ultimately between changing things for the better and changing them for the worse.

They’re as much questions for philosophers as for scientists (or patent prosecutors)—and in my opinion, to whatever extent Burbank was or wasn’t a scientist, he was absolutely a philosopher, albeit an unusually applied one. His manuscripts happened to be dinnerplate dahlias and dwarf fuchsias and rainbow Swiss chard. While he might have objected to the “hocus-pocus” connotations of his “plant wizard” epithet (as anyone might if they spent long days selectively daubing the pollen of an apricot onto the blossom of a plum by hand), the word “magic” is hard to avoid when one looks at the dizzyingly prolific body of work achieved by a single self-taught plantsman who called “Nature” his University, and who said, “The truth is that life is not material and that the life-stream is not a substance. Life is a force—electrical, magnetic, a quality, not a quantity.”

I suppose the creative impulse is always rooted in a desire to make something that outlives your own physical body, something that makes a lasting impact on the world you leave behind. It’s beyond argument that Burbank did that. What he would have made of its ripple effect is impossible to say. He certainly supported innovation and creativity. Would he have felt pride that my northern California neighborhood (and many like it all over the country and the world) is carpeted in his Shasta daisies, fire poppies, hybrid plums, self-fertile cherries, fragrant roses, pomegranates and peaches and chestnuts? Almost certainly. Would he be equally thrilled that the single largest consumer of the Burbank Russettis not Ireland, but McDonalds? Or that it was the foundation for Monsanto’s NewLeaf potato? While I don’t speak for the guy, my gut says he’d have cringed.

But that’s kind of the Maker’s Dilemma. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. For good and bad.

An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.

Pluot photo by Erin Pettigrew CC BY

Recently in Food