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We've Inbred Our Edible Crop Varieties

We've Inbred Our Edible Crop Varieties

In many Indigenous communities, farmers encourage their growth along the borders of their farms to foster cross-fertilization between their crops and these hardy varieties. But most industrial agriculture treats them as more like unwanted weeds. That is a mistake, says Alex McAlvay, who runs the NYBG’s crop wild relatives’ program. According to Inside Climate News, three quarters of crop seed varieties that existed in 1900 were extinct in 2015. This may seem like an outlandishly large percentage, but if you talk to seed collectors who diligently trace back the heritage of heirloom sends (and I have had these casual conversations over the course of the past 5 years) – this statistic checks out. Farmers who dedicate their careers in heirloom seeds today do so because they see themselves as curating biodiversity on the verge of extinction. Many seed curators veiw themselves as saving a slice of history. This makes sense especially if you consider America’s bread basket was a quilt of family run farms, compared to the Monsanto-run Midwest we have today. 

Just like mass production in a factory, the mass production of agriculture means a linearization of exactly what seeds to produce. This makes extremely large crops easy to homogenize and sell, but it means these mega crops are very susceptible to climate change and pests. Once a species of pests or a certain environmental change affects one crop, there’s no fallback variety or cross-breeding to defend against new climates. Corporate agriculture has interbred the major crops to the point of serious susceptibility. Aside, this inbred agriculture is what has led to gluten intolerance and other digestive issues with foods that used to have more diversity of different molecular compounds. Enter independent botanical gardens. Last November botanical gardens from San Diego to Vancouver to Atlanta to Vancouver joined a zoom call to discuss what wild seeds were in their inventory. Botanists can read their seeds like tree rings – they are able to discern stressor events and how a seed is likely to evolve or cross-produce. 

This type of collaboration is new. There are major colleges like the Aggies in Texas that are dedicated to agricultural and soil science. Botanical gardens are not considered agricultural beacons. The fact that botanical gardens are starting to share their inventories relative to the reproduction of food crops rather than ornamentals is an indicator of those who pursue botany as an academic career are shifting their perspective into applying their knowledge into agricultural food supply. Noted.

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