For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the rise of the seedless mandarin—a phenomenon fueled largely by consumer demand for convenience, in food as in everything else. Mandarins score high marks for marketability at a time when convenience is often at odds with health. Like packaged snacks, mandarins come in small, portable servings, have an easily removable wrapper, and taste sweet. But unlike most snacks, they are good for you. In fact, that old Kix slogan from 1978, “Kid-tested, mother-approved,” would be much more at home today on a bag of mandarins than on almost any cereal box.
While mandarins are natural, in the sense that they grow on trees planted in soil, the popular varieties sold in the supermarket are the product of decades of human intervention. In other words: they are heavily designed. Even those that are revered among the gourmand set emerged at one time from an agricultural research facility; the fruits are considered natural to the extent that time has allowed us to forget the human intervention that went into their creation. The newest varieties are bred to be seedless, above all, and impervious to becoming seeded through that fundamental process of biology known as pollination. (“Know why Cuties are seedless? Because kids hate seeds!”) And of course they need to be easy on the eyes. The ones that are too pale, too bumpy, too big or too rough get weeded out.
Once all the desirable traits are achieved in a single variety, each grower needs to distinguish itself—and if everyone’s selling the same thing, that distinction must be made through what surrounds the fruit. Packaging is creeping into the one section of the grocery store where formerly it was scarce. Citrus and potatoes used to be laid out in bulk piles by retail buyers, who eyed dazzling packinghouse logos behind the swinging door of their shop, then removed the fruit from its branded container for in-store display. Now, discerning shoppers know a Cutie from a Delite (same mandarin variety, different vertically-integrated company), a Tasteful Selection from a Star Spangled Spud.
As agricultural businesses capitalize on the opportunity to brand the previously unbranded, fitting fresh produce into the mold of consumer packaged goods, our fruit and vegetable aisle is transforming, and with it, our food itself. It’s hard not to wonder: What is the end game of this redesign? What would the produce aisle look like if every piece of citrus were palm-size, unblemished, and the same deep, glossy shade of carnelian? Or if we manipulated the spherical fruit into cubes for more space-efficient shipping? How will orchards be planned when farmers can use unmanned aerial robots to manage their crop? If profit is positively correlated with consistency (which it almost always is), are we designing our way to absolute uniformity?