While the commercialization of farms, and the move towards growing one to two high-yield crops, has seen the number of food varieties to be found globally quickly diminishing, traditional home vegetable gardens have been found to be great refuges of food biodiversity.
Europe’s gardeners and small farmers have kept alive rare varieties of well-known crops such as beans, celery, cabbage, lettuce, and tomatoes that would otherwise be extinct, Pablo Eyzaguirre said, senior scientist at Bioversity International, a research group based in Rome.
“Central Italy has 500 landraces, mostly maintained by aged farmers and gardeners and that is a big problem since there is a chance these crops will be lost within a generation – it’s eroding that quickly,” said Valeria Negri, a plant scientist at the University of Perugia.
Around ten years ago, Negri and some of her students traveled through Tuscany asking households what crops each grew. When they returned several years later to request sample seeds, one third of the plants were no longer cultivated.
Societal changes are likely to see many more of these species quickly disappear quickly. The elderly farmers are holdovers from Europe’s more agrarian past, but children and grandchildren have little or no interest in maintaining crops or bothering with seed saving. Prior to World War II 50 percent of Italy was agrarian, which has fallen to 5 percent today.
Further, Negri and her research team have discovered that these backyard crops often contain a very different gene pool than their commercial relatives. Such variants, called landraces, have unique gene qualities, which scientists are keen to protect – they may need to borrow from them in responding to climate change, or in pest resistance for example, in safeguarding the global food supply. In addition, their loss signifies the loss of a whole range of flavors associated with regional cuisines.
Three quarters of crop biodiversity has been lost in the last century, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. For example, only 20 percent of the maize types that existed in Mexico in the 1930s still exist today and in the USA, 95 percent of cabbages and 94 percent of peas no longer exist.
International Herald Tribune
A primitive or antique variety of plant, usually associated with traditional agriculture and often highly adapted to local conditions.
UNEP Biodiversity Glossary