The grace of crop diversity

I wrote one of the prefaces to the catalogue of the exhibition Abundant Future: Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field. Hope you like it. Do think about buying the catalogue, if you can. And, indeed, the artwork.

A rose is a rose is a rose, the poet says. Well, that’s one way of looking at it of course. But I think we know, deep down, that maybe, just maybe, it’s not really the best way. There are in fact dozens of species of roses, and thousands of cultivars, differing in scent, color, growth habit, flowering time, and name. And for those who don’t like thorns, there are lots of other types of flowers. That’s a good thing: it makes our life better that roses are not all the same. We know that almost instinctively.

We don’t think about it as much as we should, or even as much as we do about roses, but it’s the same with the plants we eat. We can choose from several different types of apples when we go to the supermarket, for example, with dozens more out there, if we know where to look. And there used to be even more: apples for munching raw, apples for baking pies, apples for cider, apples for juicing.

It’s not just apples though. Over the millennia during which agriculture has been practiced on this lucky planet, farmers from the Fertile Crescent to the highlands of Mexico to the river valleys of China have developed myriad different versions of each of their crops. In the same way that a rose is not just a rose, and a dachshund not a labrador, there are thousands of different types of wheat and buckwheat, of potatoes and tomatoes.

Not an autumn harvest season goes by that there isn’t something in the press about someone, usually described as a fruit detective, rediscovering a long-lost apple in an abandoned orchard or overgrown backyard. Rare, local varieties, with funny, evocative names, and unusual colors and tastes, are much loved, it seems, at least in their absence.

So we know – we feel – that such heirlooms are important; but really, what can we do about it if they keep disappearing? It’s sad to see them go, but we’ll surely survive with fewer types of apples, as we would with fewer roses in our gardens.

Well, maybe we would be able to limp along with fewer apples, squashes or zucchini on our suburban supermarket shelves, or even our organic produce stores. But where do we draw line? What if we end up with only one apple, and then a new disease comes along and wipes it out? Would we be willing to have no apples at all? What about no rice at all? Or, heaven forbid, no coffee.

Some of the varieties that have been lost might have turned out to have resistance to disease, or to have a market-beating taste. We don’t know. In too many cases, we’ll never know. And then of course there are the wild relatives of these crops, such as the wild plums and grapes in this exhibition. Ancient farmers selected only a few plants from the progenitors of crops, in only a few places. A lot of diversity was left literally by the wayside as agriculture developed.

Sometimes unremarkable or even downright weedy – though not, it must emphatically be said, in the case of the wild plums and grapes featured here – crop relatives often have genes that their cultivated descendants would dearly like to have back. The latest data suggests that two fifths of wild plants are at risk of extinction: a lot of potentially useful species and genes that could soon be gone forever. Genes for coping with drought, or high temperatures; with new pests and diseases; with new demands by industry, or shoppers. We don’t really know even what we don’t know is out there. That’s bad enough, but it’s not all.

No, a rose is not just a rose, and as this exhibition also triumphantly shows, a quince is not just a quince, a radish not just a radish, an eggplant not just an eggplant, a pumpkin not just a pumpkin. There is so much to celebrate in the differences that these artists have captured in their paintings of different crops and varieties. They represent raw material for the plant breeder, ways of making a living for farmers, heritage for local communities. And, for us all, they are, simply, beautiful – in look and taste and memories.

As another poet said, “there is a grace in wild variety surpassing rule and order.”

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