‘Uniformity is not nature’s way;
diversity is nature’s way.’
Ecologies of hope
What began with a search for rare and ancient breeds of livestock has led to a fascinating journey on which we are discovering an array of spectacular landscapes and extraordinary farmers who have dedicated their lives to saving endangered breeds.
Engaging with these places and people has broadened our notion of diversity. Heritage breeds of animals and remarkable varieties of food cannot survive without diversity in farmers, agricultural methods, natural ecosystems and wildlife species.
It is this broad spectrum of differentiation that gives us real hope for a sustainable future, because diversity fosters independence, liberation, innovation, individual identity and, above all, a source of alternative options to solve the dilemmas brought about by the industrial food system.
‘The world’s food supply hangs by a slender thread of biodiversity.’
Edward O Wilson
Here’s the evidence to support that troubling claim by the esteemed biologist and researcher Edward O Wilson:
Of the 250,000 edible plant varieties available for food, only around 150 are cultivated. Of those 150 plant species, just twelve provide 75 per cent of the world’s food supply.
As few as five mammals and bird species make up 75 per cent of global domestic livestock production.
This is why we seek out and support small-scale independent local farmers who embrace and foster biodiversity and live by the principles of regenerative agriculture.
Today, billions of acres of farmland are blanketed by a handful of crops, and billions of animals that dominate our food supply consist of just a few breeds.
Industrial agriculture has rapidly, and silently, wiped out more species of wildlife and native breeds of livestock and plant varieties than ever before in the history of humankind. The devastation rivals the mass extinction events in the life of our planet.
More than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields and half the breeds of livestock have been lost. Agro-diversity has been replaced with vast monocultures, leaving just a few genetic varieties to feed the world.
The narrow genetic base of animals and crops means our food supply is vulnerable to calamities that can be caused by climate change, diminishing natural resources and, increasingly, pests and diseases that are resistant to drugs and chemicals.
We only have to look at history to see the dangers of monoculture in farming:
When potato blight struck the fields, the uniformity of the crop allowed the disease to reach epidemic proportions. Over the following five years more than one million people died and another million left the country. The potato crop became the first in modern history to be devastated due to a lack of resistance to disease.
The ripple effect of this tragedy wasn’t limited to the ruin of crop farmers. The loss of supply and subsequent price rises reverberated through America’s food economy. Corn is used to feed cattle, poultry and swine. Food processors and distillers also depended upon corn and it is a major export commodity. At the time, the USA was exporting about 600 million bushels annually. Within a year the crisis had spread offshore, reaching Asia, Africa and Latin America. This was most likely due to US exports as the disease can be transmitted in corn seed.
In a landmark event that changed global agriculture, the Russians made up for the domestic shortfall by buying up international stockpiles, mostly from North America. Grain prices around the world soared. In Chicago, they hit a 125-year high. By 1973 the prices of corn and soybeans doubled, and prices for cattle rose 55 per cent, hogs 102 per cent and poultry 153 per cent.
The event propelled the industrialisation of agriculture in the USA, as many farmers took on more debt to ‘get bigger’. The global crop shortage was bad news for the world’s hungry. Third World countries dependent on US crops suffered because they could not afford to pay the inflated prices.
Genetic erosion in the poultry industry is amongst the worst. Today’s commercial breed lines are missing more than 50 per cent of the genetic diversity of their ancestral populations. The high degree of uniformity and associated lack of resistance to disease is a major contributing factor to the increasingly frequent outbreaks of bird flu.
In all these events, the underlying problem is not climate or disease, but genetic uniformity. Fortunately, each of the crop failures was able to be solved by finding older varieties from other countries that possessed natural resistance to the particular malady.
A potato variety resistant to the blight that caused the Great Famine in Ireland was located in South America. A strain of maize in Africa was found to be resistant to the corn blight in the USA. The solution for the Besostaja failure happened to be hardy wheat varieties discovered in the Himalayas.
These experiences provide a dramatic warning of the inherent vulnerability of homogenised food systems, as well as demonstrating the incalculable value of preserving genetic diversity. Without it, farms become vulnerable to pests and disease. That’s why industrial monocultures cannot survive without substantial applications of chemicals and drugs.
We only have to look back in time to see that plants and animals have coevolved with pests and diseases for millions of years. It is diversity that has given species the ability to adapt and keep ecosystems in balance. Without that, there would be little food around for us to eat.
Pests and diseases continue to evolve and develop resistance to chemicals and drugs, but our food sources have remained genetically uniform for nearly a century, increasing our exposure to ecological or biohazard disasters.
The inevitability of more catastrophes, and on a larger scale, is frightening.
In 1968, there were one billion chickens in China, now there are more than 13 billion. The number of pigs was five million, now there are 500 million, all intensively farmed and genetically uniform. Imagine the hunger and the social and economic breakdown across the world if a calamity occurred and a billion people could not feed themselves?
We can help prevent the flood of standardisation in our food supply by promoting the necessity of diversity and instilling that message in our culinary consciousness. The impact of diversity on our lives, the world we live in, and our future is profound and cannot be ignored.
The farms of centuries past raised thousands of uniquely different animal breeds and plant varieties in accordance with the great ecological and cultural diversity of our world.
It’s what made our agro-gastronomic history rich, expressive and vibrant, and it made us healthier, not only because food was pure but also because our diets were extremely diverse.
Today, however, despite the plethora of different food brands, packaging and cuisines, our food choices are severely limited. A look at menus across a range of restaurants reveals a commonality of ingredients: steaks from generic beef, cheese from generic milk, bread from generic wheat, eggs from generic poultry, and so on.
No matter which way the foods are cooked or presented, the issue is evident. Monoculture in our fields leads to monoculture on our plates. Homogenisation is not just in breeds and seeds, even the feeds and fertilisers are standardised.
The alternative to monotony and uniformity is heritage varieties. They bring to the table fresh new flavours, colours, textures and aromas, which can’t be found or duplicated in mass-produced commercial varieties.
For those with a refined palate, these variations in nature can be a revelation. But the beauty and value of the old varieties goes beyond livening up the table.
Heritage breeds and seeds are cultural entities. They embody a compelling history of partnership between humans and nature, with links to particular places.
Each old variety is an accumulation of knowledge, discerning husbandry, and breeding practices by successive generations of farmers. They have passed on particular traits tailored to fit the challenges presented by the local environment and the needs of the farming families and their communities.
These breeds and seeds bring a sense of continuity to our tables by referencing past ideas, philosophies, accomplishments, and ways of thinking about the local landscape, which are carried on to shape the next generation’s relationship with the place.
Further, conserving these folk varieties is about preserving the cultural significance they hold for rural communities. More than just food, they have been selected and bred to also provide fibre, power, fertiliser, fuel and nutrition, and foster healing, spirituality and the ecological health of the landscape.
The natural resiliency, productivity and ecology-enhancing functions of heritage breeds and seeds play an essential role in sustaining agro-ecosystems.
Over centuries, they have been carefully developed to possess characteristics that fit with the geo-climatic conditions of a place. Whereas other livestock and plants can’t survive in such conditions, they thrive with minimal attention and with fewer inputs and resources.
Herdwick sheep, for example, are native to the mountains of the Lake District of England. Not only do they have the agility to cope with the treacherous terrain but they’re one of the toughest mountain breeds in the world. For more than a thousand years they have been bred to suit this harsh landscape and endure the extreme climatic conditions.
In the face of shrinking natural resources and productive farmland, the ability of these remarkable heritage varieties to produce in marginal environments with minimal inputs really matters. They allow farmers to grow food at the lowest ecological cost while at the same time enhancing the health of the local landscape.
Relying on a few commercial breeds and seeds, on the other hand, is not a viable option for the future. In the short run they may produce large quantities of food but they are adapted to artificial environments, not natural. Maintaining them means depleting limited resources such as fossil fuels, soil and groundwater, which in the long run is far from sustainable.
The rich genetic legacy embodied in heritage breeds and seeds is invaluable to the future of agriculture and humankind, particularly with the alarming rate at which biodiversity has disappeared over the past century.
History has proven how vital these old varieties and wild relatives have been in rescuing agriculture from ecological failures and calamities. They are also crucial for farmers to breed vitality and resilience into herds and crops so they can adapt to changing environmental conditions.
For example, some wheat varieties cultivated in drier regions of India have developed traits such as shedding lower leaves to form mulch, which helps retain soil moisture. As the climate gets warmer and fresh water becomes a scarce resource, the value of such adaptations in enabling us to solve global problems is incalculable.
Every time we lose a variety we lose another genetic resource to potentially mitigate unforeseen and impending challenges such as desertification, global warming, blight, fresh water scarcity and the imminent end of the fossil fuel era.
Saving our rare heritage breeds and seeds not only preserves the legacy our ancestors created but it also helps secure our future, as they’re a valuable genetic resource of agricultural sovereignty for any community, region or country.
Enjoying regional differences in the tastes, aesthetics and aromas of living foods is also about recognising how these qualities are interwoven with the great diversity in local ecologies and agriculture.
Our beautiful planet is rich in variegated landscapes, from tundra to savannah grasslands, alpine mountains to rocky tablelands, wetlands to river plains, and tropical jungles to Mediterranean forests.
Each environment presents a unique set of constraints in geography, terrain, soil, climate, forage conditions, and native wildlife, which demand different ways of thinking about farming, choosing breeds, crops and methods of husbandry, and living in harmony with the natural ecology.
Since the beginning of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, farmers across the world have adapted their craft and livelihoods to the uniqueness of their places, resulting in a wide variety of approaches to farming, each of which is tailored to suit the local ecosystem.
For instance, India has around 30,000 different indigenous varieties of rice, grown in diverse habitats that range from sea level to 7,000 feet. Some varieties can grow under 20 feet of water, while others can grow with as little as 25 inches of annual rainfall.
This incredible diversity is an indication of the great variety of geo-climatic conditions in that country, and it also reflects the many different ideas held by the farmers as they each respond intelligently to the nature of their own locality.
In contrast to the uplifting Indian example of diversity, industrialisation aims to make food systems the same everywhere on the planet, regardless of local conditions. Its indifference to landscapes is both ecologically and culturally devastating, because it erases local adapted food systems and local biodiversity, and therefore the long-term sustainability of an environment.
Wendell Berry wrote: ‘the inability to distinguish between a farm and any farm is a condition predisposing to abuse, and abuse has been the result’. Indifference in agriculture and food makes diversity disappear from our perception of proper farming, and consequently from the world.
We owe our existence to the eclectic nature of traditional farming practices that have sustained us over many millennia, which is testament to the extraordinary ingenuity of our ancestral farmers in being able to adapt to almost every conceivable geo-climatic condition on our planet.
There is sustainable value in the uniqueness of farmers. We celebrate their particular talents and skills, and their relationships with nature, because they widen our options to produce food beyond the fossil fuels era and to solve the dilemmas brought about by the industrialisation of agriculture.
Hope for the future lies in the diversity of our local farmers, as a source of wealth and of alternatives.
‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’
Henry David Thoreau
Our affinity with those who farm with the wild is based on the compelling need to save and protect our planet’s evolutionary legacy – wild biodiversity.
What’s often overlooked when considering sustainable agriculture is that wildlife plays a crucial role in the productivity and stability of natural ecosystems, including agricultural systems.
In farmlands, wildlife species of soil microbes, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, plants and trees perform key functions to maintain ecological balance, such as pollination, pest and weed control, disease prevention, regulation of water and air quality, nutrient cycling, and environmental erosion control.
Without diversity in native flora and fauna and the ecosystem services they provide, farms could not survive. That’s why sterile environments such as industrial monocultures are dependent upon endless applications of toxic chemicals and a long list of other external supplies in order to operate.
Ensuring the survival of wild biodiversity is not only essential if we are to have healthy farms, but it also has profound implications on human wellbeing and economic prosperity.
The production of at least one-third of the world’s food crops relies directly on wild pollinators such as bees, birds, bats, butterflies and other insects.
Many nations still greatly depend upon the activity of pollinators for food, nutrition and medicine. While the global market value of crops dependent on natural pollination is estimated to be more than 250 billion euros, the true cost is much higher when you consider the impact on food security and economies if agricultural systems were to collapse due to a lack of pollinators – a reality that’s not far off, as UN reports estimate that 40 per cent of pollinators are facing extinction.
Besides pollination, the complexity and magnitude of other ecosystem services provided by wild species are just as valuable. With the fossil fuel era drawing to a close, and with the increasingly polluted state of our lands and waterways, wild species may be our only hope for the planet’s ability to regenerate and restore balance.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that in the past half century the Earth has lost 50 per cent of its wildlife. That puts us in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history, the last one being the meteor collision that saw the demise of the dinosaurs. Extinction is forever, and once gone these ecological services will be impossible to replace by technology.
Since agricultural landscapes contain a significant portion of the world’s diverse wildlife, we must seek out and support conservation-minded farmers who are rewilding our landscape and so ensuring a secure future for the natural legacy of our planet.