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I understand that domestic crops tend to have larger and more appetizing edible parts than wild counterparts because humans tend to desire plants with larger edible parts and so so breed them to have more later on. Similarly, people tend to breed livestock that have more muscle or develop muscle more quickly if they are being bred for meat.

More generally, farmers tend to breed the plants and animals with the traits they desire the most. I understand that breeding the plants and animals that have the most desirable qualities for the farmer tends to take patience and willpower as it means not eating the plants and animals with the most desirable qualities each year.

I was thinking of a world where farmers have a little less patience and willpower than in our world. They have the patience to plant some plants for next year and to let some livestock breed, however they only plant the seeds of the plants they didn’t care to eat or let the livestock they had the least desire to eat survive long enough to reproduce.

Would the crops and livestock in this world simply look and taste like their wild counterparts are would they tend to have smaller and less appetizing edible parts than their wild counterparts?

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    $\begingroup$ See for reference: regression to the mean. $\endgroup$ Commented May 19 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ If the crops are less nutritious than their wild counterparts, then people will not eat the crops but go out and gather the wild ones. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented May 20 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ The least desirable members would be hard to breed, as that is the reason they would be the least desirable. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Commented May 21 at 12:32
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    $\begingroup$ I guess that the crops and livestock (actually along with the farmers) would look like EXTINCT. $\endgroup$
    – Spook
    Commented May 21 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ I posit that the least desirable livestock and crops to attempt breeding from would be the ones incapable of breeding. Dead-end. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22 at 5:29

8 Answers 8

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Frame Challenge

Your premise is not realistic. I want to explain why:

The goal of increasing Yield from a Crop or an Animal in modern times has a financial aspect - that is the greater the yield, the higher the profit. More profit = more investment into the Farm = good things.

But if we go back only a few hundred years (I mean, we have been selectively breeding animals for longer than that - so could say a few Thousand) - the goal of increasing Yield is not primarily financial.

It is practical.

If you don't produce enough Yield - you and your family (who live and work on the farm) STARVE

And this is where I challenge your premise - the process of selectively breeding crops/livestock takes place over generations - Farmers who don't select the best would die out because they would starve through winter.

TL;DR - Even if your Farmers didn't select the best crops per se, Nature would absolute select the best Farmers with the best crops - because all the bad ones would die

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    $\begingroup$ The Artifical Selection of domesticated plants and animals is the result of the Natural Selection of smart farmers! $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 19 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ People would historically more likely starve in spring, not winter. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented May 21 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Well known (in some circles) is the winter of 1620-21 during which the Pilgrims were sustained by Native Americans. (Acknowledging that this represents one cherry-picked harsh-winter story.) $\endgroup$
    – user109546
    Commented May 22 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark people who starved in the spring were those who secured enough food for the winter, but not more. The Anti-Farmers from this hypothetical would not last to see the end of December, as their farming technique would not even let them replace the calories lost to farm-work. $\endgroup$ Commented May 22 at 7:31
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What you are describing is basically just natural selection. Evolution trends toward organisms getting better at avoiding getting eaten because the ones that are the easiest to eat get eaten first. One ur-example that is commonly covered in schools is Robin Seeley's snail experiments. Crabs eat snails by cracking through their shells, so if there are crabs around, snail shells get thicker. If you introduce crabs to a place they weren't before, they eat all the thinnest shelled snails and the population rapidly trends toward thicker shells. A similar situation would happen here. If you eat all the most appealing stuff, the less appealing stuff will win out. This will largely reflect the state of nature though, since that is what is happening in the natural world. Animals eat what they can. The things they eat try to get eaten as little as possible.

One exception might be with regards to fruit. In nature, resources like fruit and nectar are doled out to animals in forms that are just nutritious and appetizing enough to keep them eating them, but unsatisfying enough that they keep coming back. They aren't trying to be as unappetizing as possible, but they have no "reason" to be as appetizing as cultivated fruits either. If you were growing wild tomatoes or something though, and just gobbling up all the best tomatoes, planting the dredges, and repeating, you would probably end up with tomatoes way worse than the wild ones, since the animals that eat wild fruits generally at least disperse their seeds by accident.

One issue I kind of see with this is that it's difficult to imagine a species smart enough to farm, but not smart enough to plant their best stock. It's not like you don't get to eat the good stuff. In the case of plants you just save the seeds from the good stuff and in the case of animals you just let the best ones breed a few times before you eat them. The degree of restraint it would take isn't exactly huge. A tribe of impatient goblins who lacked the willpower for large scale planning would probably have smaller tomatoes and sicklier cows than their non-goblin neighbors, but I imagine they would most likely still show at least some signs of domestication. Even if you can't abide missing out on your juiciest cow until they are past breeding age, you could still probably wait until they had one or two calves.

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    $\begingroup$ good point if they don't have the elf control to t the best breed they dont have the self control to domesticate them in the first place. They would just eat them as soon as they catch them. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 20 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ @John It could work for a humor story. Like I feel like I could imagine something like this in a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams novel, some alien species or fantasy stereotype whose food sets world records for awfulness because they neurotically gobble up the best of their crop every year, selecting for more and more terrible food as time goes on. It is kind of a funny concept, if not a feasible one. $\endgroup$
    – Jeremiah
    Commented May 20 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ What you're suggesting is that the crops would eventually become prolific and inedible weeds because that's how it's surviving. I like it! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 20 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ @John good point. If they are doing the opposite of domestication, that means they aren't doing domestication which means nature takes its course. As for "humans breeding undesirable traits", look no further than pedigree dogs. We have successfully ruined several dog races, producing specimens who have dysplasic hips and even trouble breathing. To go the other way around, look no further than extremely hot chilly peppers, coffee plants, tobacco, marihuana, poppies or theobromine rich cocoa plants. We actually selectively bred those things for the amount and potency of poison they produce. $\endgroup$
    – jo1storm
    Commented May 21 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ @jo1storm in the case of dogs is was for things already domesticated, they did not need ot hunt and capture wild dog. no self control needed. As for the plants those are prefectly normal selective breeding, we wanted those posions, which means humans needed to not sunsume the plants with the most posion even though they wanted too. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 21 at 21:20
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This Won't Last Long

Let's break your crops into three groups:

  • Group A: these crops have large, nutrient-packed fruits. In the wild, they are at a disadvantage because they spend a lot of energy on the fruit that they do not need to. They may or may not exist in the wild, depending on how fierce the competition is.
  • Group B: these crops have small fruits. The fruit is big enough to be successful in the wild but not so large that they are wasting resources on fruit. Without human intervention, this is likely the evolutionary ideal.
  • Group C: these crops have tiny, or even missing, fruit. The crops are strong and healthy as a plant but hold little, if any, value as a food to humans. They will effectively run themselves extinct in the wild by being unable to reproduce.

If humans decide to only plant group C, they will be planting crops with little to no nutritional value, and that value will keep going down over time, since you're effectively rewarding poor performance. The only way this works is if Group C has more value to livestock (possible), but since you're doing the same plan with livestock as well, they are going to get worse and worse over time.

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As others have said, it wouldn't last for very long for the simple reason that doing this only hurts humans being at best not very nutritious and at worst flat out uneditable with said humans eventually starving to death during the winter or other harsh periods because they weren't able to get anything to eat.

To answer the question itself, if I had to guess they would probably just look more like their wild counterparts before they were domesticated.

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Breeding for the worst: some real life examples and historical references

What you describe (poor breeding and husbandry practices) is a common problem which will lead to a series of outcomes depending on multiple of other factors: from varieties being lost to famine. Wild plants and animals will remain as your baseline, and will remain available in the wild unless they were previously extinct, many communities complement their farming with foraging.

Even in the case of extinct wild relatives, most domesticated plants and animals will keep their wild ancestor's genes and have some capacity to return (when done intentionally, this is called backbreeding). You need to notice that seed saving is not always incompatible with consumption (tomatoes, pumpkins and all fruits harvested when fully ripe - you can eat them and keep the seed aswell!) and that in the case of animals, small, relatively autonomous communities will tend to breed for multiple uses! (the cows in my grandsfather's village were used for work, meat and some milk for the children).

It is important to consider that farming systems unintentionally select also for the worst weeds and parasites (easier to spread, toxic, tough, thorny, unedible by livestock, etc), by putting pressure on them.

The most important question is how densely populated and interconnected is your world, which technologies are available, how widespread is trade and who needs to farm locally in order to survive.

We are now living in a globalised world where thousands of local varieties and breeds have already been lost, seed selection is mostly done by a few companies and often the chosen traits favour characteristics like shelf life over others more important to human wellbeing like oligoelements content. You could say we are currently breeding weaker, less nutritious plants, dependent on high levels of synthetic inputs.

Besides specialisation, economies of scale and concentration of knowledge and power, the other possibility of "breeding for the worst" that comes to my mind is for religious or cultural reasons, like the many dogs breeds which are plagued by health problems. This also happened with the human Royal families due to intermarriage, see the last Habsburg kings of Spain!

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This actually has happened. In North America, when the horse was re-introduced, the tribes mastered herding and riding them without mastering breeding them. (Except for the Nez Perce, who mastered horse breeding with amazing speed, which is actually the surprising result.)

Consequently, they would ride their best stallions, and leave the inferior stallions with the mares, and so accidentally breed from the least desirable horses. They were heavily dependent on capturing horses, whether from mustangs or other owners. Also note that this period was less than two centuries, which is a short period of time to learn that their short-term benefit caused long-term harm, to figure out how to make it work for the long-term, and to adapt the customs.

If farmers are all breeding their least desirable plants and animals, they will not even have the outlet of stealing from their further-sighted neighbors. OTOH, they will also not have the benefit of seeing what their neighbors do. Consequently, the breeds will slowly degenerate until the farmers slowly master the art of breeding.

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In sugarbeets, there is a trait, that they produce a seed-plant in the 2nd year of the beets existence. Its all seed, no sugar, a thousand little turtles with nearly no nutritional value. The seed can lay in the ground and grow again and again. They overtake and outshadow the other beeds. If you try to cut them off, they will regrow flat along the ground. And spawn millions more of them.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar_beet

There is a reason, some fields where "plowed" under when the weeds got to bad. Cause you have less fight by killing everything, tabula rasa style. This is what the re-evolution looks like. Back to the origin, the basics. Not good for humans.

PS: The beet recovers if you do not destroy the root thoroughly.

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The farms would look like ruins, the cities deserted

Choosing the worst producers and least resistant specimens for reproduction means the yield will go down. As yield reduces, there comes a point where the crop won't have enough yield to have another crop and eat the next year.

As such, farmers choosing that way will die from starvation, the towns they supplied have died or left a couple of years prior, when the farm barely made sustenance. In the long term, humans that don't select for at least equal or more productive crops either die from starvation as their crops fail or end as neo-primitive hunter-gatherers as they give up farming.

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