Decline in Crop Diversity – Big Problem for Everyone?
By Al McClain
According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, crop diversity is declining, and we all have a lot to worry about. José Esquinas-Alczár, a top
official at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome says, “Diversity is what makes us happy, gives us choice, and keeps us free. And it’s tragic because this is what
we are losing.”
Last year, a UN treaty required countries to preserve existing crops and created an international system for sharing crops and plant genes, but it could be a case of “too little,
Statistics cited by Esquinas-Alczár reveal the story:
- Of 8,000 varieties of apples grown in the U.S. in 1900, 95+ percent are extinct
- Only 20 percent of corn types recorded in Mexico in 1930 remain
- Only 10 percent of 10,000 wheat varieties grown in China in 1949 remain
Esquinas-Alcázar says that, historically, humans utilized more than 7,000 plant species to meet their basic food needs, but now only 150 plant species are under cultivation,
and most humans live on only 12 plant species. This is due in large measure to limitations of modern, large-scale, mechanized farming.
For humans, this trend results in more one-dimensional diets, wherein all produce such as tomatoes, corn and potatoes look and taste the same. For farmers, as species die out,
genetic diversity is lost and the ability to breed new types of seed crops that can adapt to changing conditions is lost. While modern farmers tend to rely on a few crops, small-scale
traditional farmers have taken the opposite approach, growing a wide variety of crops and seeds to hedge their bets.
Just as people have learned to drink wine and appreciate the distinctions in variety, Esquinas-Alcázar says people need to develop their tastes for more varieties of all
food, even common ones such as potatoes and rice.
Moderator’s Comment: If declining crop diversity is a side effect of modern farming and production methods, what can be done to swing the pendulum back
in the other direction? Can retailers and suppliers create consumer demand for more types of produce? Are natural/organic suppliers, retailers, and farmers in a position to help?
This is a complex problem, involving farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
I remember a number of years ago eating Silver Queen corn, which was at that time famous in New Jersey. It has apparently died out over the years, as it
was harder to grow, costlier to produce, etc. And, we all know that many of the most popular fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets are not very tasty, but they have a nice
uniform look and appeal. I try to do my part by picking the ugliest looking tomatoes, as they usually taste the best.
It would seem that, as our cultures and tastes grow more diverse and complex, there would be a growing market for unfamiliar flavors and varieties of produce. This might be an
opportunity for small suppliers and manufacturers that could evolve into a mainstream business. –
Al McClain – Moderator