Variety Show

Digest

November 14, 2013 | BY Janice Leung Hayes

Just how diverse is the produce we have in Hong Kong? Our guest blogger Janice Leung Hayes investigates

1- dodo.jpg -Illustration by Kitty N. Wong

Have you ever wondered why there are never more than a couple of varieties of each fruit or vegetable available at the market or supermarket? If you're looking for apples, you'll find Galas, Fujis, Granny Smiths but not much more. There are two types of lemons if you're lucky, and almost always just one type of celery. Carrots we see now are all orange, when in fact years ago, we had purple, white and green carrots too.

This isn't because supermarkets aren't importing enough. It's because variety no longer exists.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that in the last century, 75 per cent of genetic diversity in plants has been lost. Aside from less apple varieties in our shopping baskets, this decline in biodiversity impacts the world as a whole.

The extinction of certain animals, such as the famous dodo, occasionally make the headlines, but we hardly ever hear about the extinction of plant varieties. Extinction, or the disappearance of a particular strain of life on Earth, affects us all. We've all heard about food chains in the ecosystem - when a variety of plant or animal life is lost, it breaks the chain and the effects eventually trickle down to all of us. From microbes that nourish soils, and plankton that absorb carbon dioxide, to fish, lions, alligators and human beings, we're all connected.

2- apples-2.gif -
Illustration by Kitty N. Wong

The industrialisation of farming is what affects diversity in the foods we eat. Because crops need to be extremely large to maximise profit and efficiency, farmers of these crops can only grow one variety, such as Fuji apples. We're not the only ones who need crops. Birds, bees, worms, soil and more all rely on certain plants, and when you rip out the variety they survive on, they die.

Traditional farmers observe their plants for individual characteristics, like resistance to certain diseases, resilience to harsh weather, yield, flavour, or other qualities they prefer. They may cross-breed varieties to achieve the desired result. They'll then save seeds from the plants they prefer, and plant them next season. Because each farm's conditions and each farmer's requirements are different, each will end up with many different varieties of the same plant. This multitude of varieties will help in times of trouble, such as the presence of a crop disease, or drought – if only one variety was available, any attack on that variety (whatever its Achilles heel may be) will wipe the crop out.

It is said the Irish potato famine could have been avoided if more diverse strains potato were planted. Similarly, in the 1970s, most of the US's corn production was damaged due to leaf blight, as they were all the same variety of corn with the same weakness.

Our reliance on monocultures (large plots of land used to intensively farm one variety, the predominant form of farming and industrial standard in first world countries) and associated herbicide and pesticide use strip soil of their nutrients, and chemical residue runs into waterways, in which fish and a whole other ecosystem lives and, well, you get the picture.

Since the misleadingly named Green Revolution of the 1950s, the rise of industrial farming meant that seed saving and maintenance of biodiversity has been on the decline. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was launched by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an environmental group attempting to gather and store all seeds available from gene banks worldwide. Located in far north Norway, just 1,300km from the North Pole, the facility serves as a Noah's Ark of plants, in case of extinction crises. Dubbed the "Doomsday Vault", let's hope it never needs to be actively deployed.