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The Shrinking Plant Kingdom

Guest Contributor

Genetic Erosion and Gastronomy: Industrialised farming techniques are having a detrimental effect on the world's food diversity.

How is it that in a time when we have access to exotic cuisines and foods from the world over, when our shopping baskets are full of seemingly hard to source ingredients, some are talking about a 'crisis' of food security?

Many scientists, farmers and chefs believe that widespread planting of popular crops has resulted in depleted variations, and that we are growing too narrow a range of fruit, vegetables, cereals and other crops – all leading to a loss in genetic diversity. The statistics appear to back up their concern. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) states that between 1900 and 2000 we lost 75% of crop diversity – an alarming figure.

The industrial farming technique of 'monocrop' agriculture – growing a single crop on a piece of land, year after year – is part of the reason for this loss of variety. Farmers who follow this method are more likely to use genetically engineered seeds, or at the very least have chosen a seed variant that can produce a high yield and handle the rigours of mechanised production and international shipping. The short-term gain of high yield crops has led to the widespread use of monocrop agriculture.

The disadvantages of monocrop farming are many. Traditional agriculture was dominated by small hold farmers who planted a variety of seeds, rotating crops year after year and allowed different plants to grow on the soil at different times, thus replenishing nutrients and preserving the quality of the soil. There is less need for pesticides and fertilisers when nutrients are encouraged this way. In contrast, monocrop agriculture is heavily reliant on pesticides and fertilisers. Monocrop farmers may have a disinclination to choose those seeds that require a very particular environment to thrive, are more susceptible to pests or offer a lower yield.

The result is that we are missing out on a variety and tastes that could be adding to our daily diet. Crops that are native to a certain area are being replaced with seeds selected by farmers from international catalogues. Important indigenous crops are being phased out for hardier varieties.

Take 'wild rice' (a specific type of grass), a staple of the Native Americans of the Upper Midwest region. Grown in mudflats, rivers and lakes, wild rice varies from one location to the next depending on local water, soil and weather conditions. Today there is a huge decline in the farming and use of wild rice. This is attributable to factors such as damming, but also the planting of other types of rice that are sturdy, easily harvested, and more popular. As the plants that households have access to changes, there is a change in cooking practices and the meals they eat become more homogenised.

The loss of seed variety won't just impact on cuisine. The use of wild rice in indigenous cultures went beyond cooking – it was said to have spiritual qualities and was often used in tribal rituals.

It's not only chefs or indigenous tribes, amateur gardeners now have access to a more standardised variety of seeds. Commercial farmers will often supply the surplus seeds used in commercial agriculture to be sold into supermarkets and garden centres. Gardens are likely to be growing the same variant of crop that is found throughout the country. For those who are passionate about biodiversity (or just want a little more variation in the tomatoes in their recipes) there is an increasing awareness and advocacy for growing heirloom seeds as a means to preserve local variants of food and cuisines. These seeds have been passed down from generation to generation, being carefully grown and preserved – effectively saving local variants of plants. An heirloom carrot seed from the North may vary greatly to one from the South East in terms of colour, flavour, yield, hardiness and adaptability.

Many restaurants are incorporating heirloom crops into their menu, not only to provide an eclectic and fascinating experience for diners, but to build a sustainable kitchen. Peter Gilmore, head chef at Sydney's prestigious Quay restaurant is an Australian pioneer in sourcing rare plants and heirloom vegetable seeds. As both a gardener and a chef he has developed close relationships with small farmers who grow bespoke fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Loss of biodiversity is not just limited to plant life, the variety of animals being bred for food is also shrinking. For a number of decades cattle farmers have been replacing local cattle with more 'productive' breeds. Cows producing higher volumes of milk are preferred by dairy farmers, and less marbled beef is farmed to respond to consumer demands for lean meat.

In Northern Italy the beloved cheese Parmigiano Reggiano is made from the milk of one breed of cow, the Reggiana or 'red cow'. The milk of this breed is high in casein, a protein that is critical for transforming the milk to cheese and influences the ageing and digestibility processes. Whilst the cheese is made in a few regions in Italy, purists say that the true Parmigiano Reggiano must come from the red cow's milk. As farmers focused on breeding other cattle in the 1980s the population of the Reggiana dropped to below 500. Today there are over 1500 red cows, and authentic Parmigiano Reggiano can be enjoyed in greater numbers, however it's easy to see that without concerted conservation efforts the population could have easily faced extinction.

As a food lover, the prospect of incorporating a larger variety of fresh grains, fruits and vegetables into cooking is exciting. Whilst the overwhelming majority of producers do not specify if they engage in monocropping or use heirloom seeds, it is a safe bet that organic farmers utilise more sustainable farming practices. Organic farmers use minimal pesticides and fertilisers and are far more likely to rely on crop rotation as a natural way to keep soil nutrient rich. We also hope that restaurants will become more conscious of where their seeds are sourced from, and pass this information on to the end consumer.

Biodiversity is a topic that has seen little publicity relative to the media storm that surrounded the testing and introduction of GM crops, however there needs to be a wider discussion before we lose even more crops and plants.