Decline in Crop Diversity – Big Problem for Everyone?

Aug 19, 2005

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,
too late.”

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

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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7 Comments on "Decline in Crop Diversity – Big Problem for Everyone?"

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Bernice Hurst
16 years 9 months ago
There was an interesting article a few days ago giving the sample menus offered by Laura Bush’s shortlisted candidates for White House chef. At least two of them featured dishes using heritage tomatoes. Plural. As in several varieties. What aroused my curiosity was where they were able to find them. Last year I did quite a bit of research into traditional apples and their disappearance on both sides of the Atlantic. Supermarkets love to say that they have stopped selling various things because there is no consumer demand but this is an argument I love to hate. It is simply an excuse to force farmers and growers to produce industrial quantities for commercial prices. Obviously most consumers love low prices, even I can’t dispute that one, and I also admit that no retailer should/would even try to stay in business if they didn’t believe that they could make a reasonable profit but eliminating the ability to choose is not a good solution and just makes me see red. There is increasing evidence that some people… Read more »
Jeff Weitzman
Jeff Weitzman
16 years 9 months ago

Not sure if the author was only looking at commercially grown crops, because there is a thriving market for “heritage” plants in everything from roses to tomatoes for home gardening. That, at least, bodes well for preserving the gene lines.

Commercially, genetic homogeneity is certainly a problem in any species or type of organism, especially if it is an artificially pressured system. I’m not sure how we can change the system, however. I suspect it will have to start with consumer demand, but initially, price is going to be a big hurdle.

Maybe a little genetic engineering to create diversity without a difference is in order: crops that are actually genetically diverse might be made to appear similar for greater retail appeal. I’m only half-kidding. If fruit has to be pretty, maybe we can save a species by changing its appearance without too much change to the taste and genetic underpinnings. Not a perfect solution, but it would help guard against famine.

Tom Zatina
Tom Zatina
16 years 9 months ago

It seems that diversity in almost everything decreases over time via social or genetic engineering. It is diversity that gives a society (and a diet) its richness and provides interest.

Modern farming, economics and marketing have diminished crop diversity. In the end, it will be up to consumers to bring it back, but retailers and suppliers must take the lead in finding ways to get these items on the shelf. As strange as it sounds, these old varieties may well provide “special” status to a produce department in the future. Look for the leadership to probably come from natural food stores and their devotees.

James Tenser
16 years 9 months ago

The loss of agricultural diversity combined with monoculture farming techniques carries a very dark potential consequence. Reliance on only a few highly-engineered plant and animal varieties to feed billions of people exposes the world to potential food supply catastrophe.

While highly productive, monoculture could expose the food production system to disease epidemics and even deliberate terrorist mayhem. Think Mad Cow. Should a disease evolve (or be developed in a lab) that attacks a certain grain or food animal in widespread cultivation, it could devastate the food supply, with ghastly consequences for large swaths of human population. Diversity of crops would, logically, help protect against such Malthusian disasters – or at least limit their scale.

Put in more positive terms, variety makes our diets more interesting, provides a wider range of nutrients and supports a system of agricultural production by smaller farms. Retailers should buy from many producers so they can present a more attractive variety to consumers, and as a hedge against too much concentration of production in the hands of agribusiness.

Mark Lilien
16 years 9 months ago

Crop diversity is hip and fashionable. Like clothing fashions, sometimes it takes time to migrate from a minority population to get to the majority. For example, expensive restaurants serve unusual items such as blue potatoes and edible flowers in salads.

When Whole Foods and other upscale groceries sell these items, the margins are superior to the high-volume commodities. Enlarging the assortment of unusual items can lead to superior marketing and financial performance.

Would you rather be known as the store that has what everyone else has, or the store that has the stuff that’s really special?

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
16 years 9 months ago

The United Nations can’t keep its own house in order, let alone the global agricultural community–but that’s another story.

Basically, the marketplace dictates what’s being grown. This is certainly a matter of price, underscored by production, transportation and growing costs. No one really needed 8,000 varieties of apples and you couldn’t grow enough of any one variety to make it economically feasible.

Let’s also keep in mind that many varieties disappear for other reasons–not the least of which is natural selection. There may have been thousands of varieties of wheat at one time. But was it a quality crop and how resistant were they to diseases and parasites? And were they susceptible to damage in transport? Some things simply disappear for good reasons.

Rick Moss
16 years 9 months ago

To some extent, I see Len’s point when it comes to the massive production of crops for food processing, such as tomatoes for ketchup or grains for breakfast cereal. However, diversity of the produce selection in its raw state is something I think retailers need to support. Shoppers are always looking for new ingredients for salads and recipes, and the increasing popularity of varieties being introduced via immigrant cultures attests to that.

The local sourcing movement takes on this matter head-on. If grocers can help support local farmers so that they can make a living producing a diverse selection at lower quantities, it will benefit all. The distinctive varieties they produce locally, it would seem to me, could then move upstream to big agri-growers who would consider their worthiness as mass-producible crops. The small farmers become the “farm system’ (baseball analogy) for the “big leagues.” Isn’t that healthier than doing whatever seems to meet short-term economic goals for agri-business?


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