I’m not talking here about which supermarket or grocery you shop in, or whether your food was grown locally or comes from overseas, but rather where the crop plants we eat were first discovered and developed as food. Now that we can pretty much eat whatever we want, from wherever we want, whenever we want – do you know where the food you eat first evolved and originated from?
Here’s a beginners guide to food origins and the importance of diversity.
Let’s begin with a test. Do you know where the following food crops originated from?
Scroll down to see if you got the right answer.
Did you get them?
potatoes – Peru
avocado – Central America
sunflower – North America
broccoli – southern Europe
melon – Africa
cherries – Asia
macadamia nuts – Australia
The map below indicates the centre of origin of over 150 crops and comes from a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. There is also an interactive map of crop food origins produced by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture available here.
Another interesting report on centres of diversity for global crops comes from Greenpeace.
But why should we care about food origins?
Well – local crop plants are usually better adapted to their local environments, and eating locally and by the season reduces food miles and carbon emissions. So knowing what crop foods originated in your region can help you make more sustainable food choices.
But more generally plants are really important in developing countries, whose population can depend on them for as much as 90 percent of their needs – food, fuel, medicine, shelter, transportation. However, there have been some recent disturbing trends in the diversity of crops we consume and their development for agriculture.
Diversity is the spice of life
Despite the huge diversity of foods out there – food sources include 5,538 different plant species, and roughly a quarter of a million plant varieties – less than 3 percent are in use today. Of the 150 major crops listed above, just 12 provide three-quarters of the world’s food, and more than half of the world’s food calories come from the three “mega-crops”: rice, wheat, and maize. Another six – Sorghum, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybean and sugar – provide another 25 percent.
A wide range of other “minor crops” are important to millions of other people in the developing world – especially the poor. For example, cassava provides more than half the plant food energy for people in Central Africa. Groundnuts, pigeon peas, lentils, cowpeas, yams, bananas, and plantains are also important food staples for millions of others. Wild species – some call them weeds – are also an important source of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, especially in poor rural households in developing countries.
But still, the diversity of plants consumed and available for research and development has reduced dramatically in recent years. And with disuse comes neglect and possibly extinction. This trend, and the increasing industrialization of agriculture are key factors in what is known as “genetic erosion” – the loss of genetic diversity over time.
Genetic diversity within major crops is important to conserve so that we can avoid vulnerability to diseases that could affect production worldwide.
Genetic diversity and the variety of forms within crop species can also be important sources of new foods. For example, numerous different vegetables are derived from wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, kohlrabi, gai lan and canola.
The problem with modern agriculture
Modern agriculture and crop improvement tend to concentrate on a small number of varieties designed for intensive farming. Researchers can breed a wide variety of plant hybrids in the laboratory. But these hybrids tend to succeed only under ideal conditions, requiring just the right inputs of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. For most farmers, such conditions simply don’t exist. As a result, instead of obtaining poor yields using these new hybrids, the farmers continue to do the best they can with their own local varieties.
In addition, many of the food staples used by millions of the world’s poorest people (e.g. groundnuts, pigeon peas, lentils, cowpeas, yams, bananas, and plantains) receive little attention from agricultural researchers.
Have you tried coix, goji berries, red seaweed, jack fruit or drinking vinegar? Try them – remember diversification is the key to a good diet and helping conserve the worlds crop resources.
The good news is that agricultural diversity is alive and well in many places around the world. Traditional crops and cropping systems include grains, root crops, legumes, spices, forages, and so-called “wild” foods such as herbs and medicinal plants.
In many parts of the developing world, diversity in agricultural production is an important part of people’s culture. In Nepal, for example, certain varieties of rice are used as gifts, while others are used as medicine. Sometimes growing a diversity of crops is simply a way of making the best use of local conditions.
In addition, agricultural diversity helps provide stability for farmers who grow a range of crops. If one particular crop or variety fails, the others help make up the difference. It’s like having insurance against unfavourable conditions.
Approximately 1.4 billion people, mostly resource-poor farmers, also improve their own crop seeds, using local landraces ‘varieties of native crops found locally). This helps to maintain and enhance the genetic diversity of crops.
For example, the maize found even in remote areas of Mexico today is not the same as the maize found in the same location hundreds of years ago. Maize is an open-pollinating species that readily exchanges genes with other maize plants growing nearby. Farmers long ago recognized this as a way to adapt varieties to their own needs. Mexican farmers say that their maize “gets tired.” When this happens, they seek other varieties to mix it with.
Another study in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, revealed that helping small farmers identify the traditional varieties they want and then providing them with inexpensive seed is one of the most important contributions institutions can make to genetic resource conservation and rural development.
Five easy things that you can do to help save crop genetic resources
Know which are the crops native to your region, and select those and eat by season
Seek out new and unusual crop plants from your region – this will help these species from falling into disuse and ultimately extinction
Seek out new and unusual varieties of native crops (e.g. try a new type of apple)- this helps support diversification in production and supply, and promotes genetic resource diversity.
Grow your own vegetables and get to know them – this will help you understand what grows best in your local climate, again seeking out unusual species or varieties to plant will help manage and preserve diversity in genetic resources.
Try new and emerging foods from other regions – we’ve all tried chia and quinoa (do you know where those come from? – both South America). Have you tried coix, goji berries, red seaweed, jackfruit or drinking vinegar? Try them – remember diversification is the key to a good diet and helping conserve the worlds crop resources.
Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report.
He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy is a passionate science communicator, he has been Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review and the Advertiser and is a regular author, speaker and podcast host.
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