Grow Them Out! (or how to save cultivated biodiversity)

Photo credit: ellenm1

Jim Richardson is no scientist. He’s a National Geographic photographer. As such, he got to work on one of the most fascinating, relevant, crucial stories of our times: the preservation of seeds and heirloom animal breeds.

The great thing about lay people is that they speak a language that you and I can understand. “Agricultural biodiversity is the most important legacy of mankind,” said Jim Richardson this week at a talk hosted by the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. I guess that sums it up. Think about it: thousands of plant species and animal breeds created over 10,000 years of agricultural history, designed to match an innumerable diversity of climates, elevations, weather hardships, and pests. All for one purpose only: making sure that we, humans, have food to sustain ourselves.

“We kept developing the gene-pool for 9,900 years, and then something happened at the dawn of the 20th century: we starting throwing it away,” said the good photographer, a farm kid from the Midwest who grew up to travel the world for one of America’s most prestigious magazines.

That’s right. The rise of the Industrial Revolution, and our new-found trust in technology, coincide with the beginning of the thoughtless squandering of our most precious resource: the plants and the animals that we feed off.

Jim Richardson had some slides, interspersed among his many photographs, to prove the point: between 1903 and 1983, the number of varieties of lettuce grown in the United States went from 497 to 36. There were only 79 varieties of tomato left in 1983, compared to 408 eighty years before. And that’s only a tiny sample. The sad story repeats the world over. Ditto for farm animals, with at least one-third of the heirloom breeds either endangered or extinct.

Photo credit: ellenm1

I’m most grateful to Jim Richardson for his mention of Nikolay Ivanovitch Vavilov. Born in 1887, the Russian agricultural scientist is the “father” of research on agricultural biodiversity. Keen to find varieties of wheat that would withstand the Russian harsh climate, hence putting an end to repeated famines in his native homeland, Vavilov traveled the world in search of cultivated-biodiversity heavens. His reasoning was that the region that holds the highest number of varieties of a plant, is the region where this particular plant originated. In the process, he mapped the Centers of Diversity of Cultivated Plants.

His findings still make authority today. Incidentally, he was the founder of the first seed bank in history, an involved affair in Stalingrad, defended during the Second World War against the long German siege by loyal employees who starved to death rather than consuming the seeds under their care. Sadly, about half of the seed collection is unusable today, as maintaining it is an expensive endeavor that involves growing the seeds to “recycle” them. This story, and many more as they relate to us today, were told in the fascinating book “Where Our Food Comes From”, by Gary Paul Nabhan.

Jim Richardson was rather short on the causes of the destruction of cultivated biodiversity. He named industrial farming as the main culprit. He called the meat packing industry a “dis-assembly line”, where only very few breeds meet the “specs” required for “processing” (including bone length and thickness). He also had surprisingly little to say on the impact of the biotech industry and genetically-modified seeds on the narrowing of the gene-pool of crops as GM crops are taking over food production around the world.

His message was important and powerful, nevertheless, and I’m happy to share it here. “You want to save seeds? Grow them out!” Cultivating some long-forgotten variety of potato, tomato or even cabbage in your garden is “one of the best examples of community citizen-participation,” he said. When it comes to long-term food security, “it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about not throwing away the wheel.”

Hard to argue with that… So as winter is winding down, and if you’re one of the lucky ones with access to a plot of land (no matter how small), connect with an heirloom seeds network (some leads here), let yourself be inspired by the glorious pictures and unfamiliar names, and plant yourself some vegetables that neither you, your children, your neighbors nor your friends, have never seen, let alone ever tasted, before. Yours will be a true contribution to mankind.

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