The Possibility of agricultural Diversity? Back in 1998, I came across a somewhat obscure seed catalog called Deep Diversity, A Planetary Gene Pool Resource. This collection of seed was unique in the rareness of many of the seed varieties offered, but what really struck me was how the seed was categorized and displayed. It was all relational, based on the kinship shared by these plants in the broader Plant Kingdom. At the time I was very familiar with the incredible diversity within the solanaceous family of plants. This would include all of the species of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and so on. Within each of these species was a rich diversity of incredibly colorful and flavorful heirloom varieties. Over time I began to learn that this ever deepening well of variation extended to every other vegetable, legume, grain, herb, fruit and nut species on the planet. We now know of the existence of countless hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes in existence, with new ones being rediscovered every year. Wheat has over 5000 varieties, corn over 3000 and rice around 11,000 varieties, tucked away in frozen seedbanks worldwide. This variation is staggering and the possible breeding combinations is innumerable. That is Deep Diversity on a mind blowing scale.
So the question is, why is this vast array of diverse food crops shrinking? Of course among die-hard foodies and obsessive seed savers, it appears that we are winning the battle to restore sustainability and ecological diversity. I believe the idiom “to look through rose colored glasses” would apply; and it is not a matter of looking at the glass half full or half empty. The uncomfortable truth is that the glass, representing agro-diversity, is less than a quarter full, and, it has a leak! Much of this wonderful heritage and ancient seed may soon disappear due to nothing more conspiratorial than apathy and ignorance. If food security and food sovereignty is a worthy goal, it can not exist without first having seed security and sovereignty.
The area where I live in Northern Indiana is still called the “Bristol Fruit Hills”. It was given that title back in the early 1900s due to the large orchards and melon farming that existed in the area. Slowly, overtime, those orchards began to disappear. Some of the remnants still existed when I was a kid, but had fallen into neglect. Today, here at my home, on the stretch of State Road 15 that cuts through the heart of the old “fruit hills”, only one working orchard remains. Up until a few years ago, there were 2 fairly large remnants of the old orchards a bit further up the road, closer to Bristol. One looked to be about 10 acres of old apple trees, and the other was probably closer to 100 acres. I watched as the backhoes and bulldozers came in and removed every single tree, so that the land could be planted to irrigated corn and soybeans. Nameless crops, with no regional heritage, simply thought of as commodities, like oil and natural gas. This is the loss of diversity, and the loss of security, as those crops that supplanted the fruit trees, will not show up in our local grocery stores as tortilla chips, nor Indiana tofu and edamame.
Like the seed catalog I came across years ago had presented the kinship aspect of food plants, so too, we are “relational” with our food. We are as much a part of that Plant Kingdom, as the plants themselves. Our interdependent interactions with our food, as farmers, gardeners, breeders and consumers, demands our full attention, with no place for ignorance and apathy. Hopefully, this age of computers and cell phones has not reduced our relationship with food down to something as inorganic as a “Grocery App”, that tells us how many calories are in an heirloom fig from California. And hopefully, we have not been blinded as to what the possibility of real “deep” food diversity should look like. To look around our area, see the thousands of acres planted to conventional corn and soybeans,to the detriment of all the many other crops that can be grown here, and be told this is normal, profitable, and sustainable is a lie. While there may be a “bone to pick” with Monsanto, the USDA and Corporate American Agriculture, I believe, the real fight is with ourselves. It is our purchasing choices that count; our personal decisions and participation in local democracy that will shape what our food future will look like. Forget about Washington, and forget about the UN and the EU. Look to your family and your neighbors and ask “what’s for dinner tonight?”