Brainfood: Insect biodiversity, Pollinator conservation, Sustaining protected areas, Tea gardens, Sustainable meat hunting, Eating weeds in Crete, Organic ag in Sweden, New wine grape varieties, Genomic crop improvement, Anthocyanins in crops, Amaranthus core collection, Bere barley

What have genebanks ever done for us?

Still need to be convinced about the value of genebanks? Well, hot on the heels of the 2020 collection Genebanks and Food Security in a Changing Agriculture now comes another tranche of studies from the Impact Fellowship program that has been running under the just-concluded CGIAR-Crop Trust Genebank Platform:

  1. Developing country demand for crop germplasm conserved by the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System. Demand is high and probably getting higher, and better data helps everyone.
  2. Global demand for rice genetic resources. Demand is high, even from farmers, especially for accessions with better data.
  3. The role of CGIAR Germplasm Health Units in averting endemic crop diseases: the example of rice blast in Bangladesh. The Germplasm Health Units have a return on investment of 112 for this one disease in one country.
  4. IITA’s genebank, cowpea diversity on farms, and farmers’ welfare in Nigeria. New cowpea varieties derived from genebank accessions are good for livelihoods and don’t displace landraces.
  5. Genebanks and market participation: evidence from groundnut farmers in Malawi. New groundnut varieties derived from genebank accessions help get farmers into markets through higher production.
  6. Dynamic guardianship of potato landraces by Andean communities and the genebank of the International Potato Center. The in situ survival probability of rematriated landraces was 18% after 15 years.

Brainfood: Finger millet diversity, US wheat diversity, Enset diversity, Anglo Saxon diets, Agrobiodiversity index, Rangeland management, Butia groves, Cryotherapy, Bogia Syndrome, Niche models, Merino ancestors

Still important to eat up your fruit and veg

Fruit and vegetables sold in the UK are ‘half as nutritious’ as 80 years ago due to depleted levels of iron, magnesium, sodium and copper, study shows

That’s the headline in the Daily Mail. But is it true?

Well, the study in question didn’t actually measure anything. It looked at the UK’s Composition of Foods Tables1 for 1940, 1991 and 2019, and compared the levels of 7 nutrients in 29 fruits and vegetables2 sold (but not necessarily grown) in the UK for which the data were roughly comparable. That is, for which results were presented in the tables for raw samples of the same part of the same sort of plant prepared in the same way: unpeeled eating apples, say.

To be clear, this analysis can say nothing about whether modern vegetable or fruit varieties are on average more or less nutritious than older ones. In the jargon, any differences between old and new varieties are confounded in this dataset with differences in growing conditions and agronomic practices, for example, and more besides. There’s no way to disentangle one from the other, and the authors of the paper make this clear.

So what can the study say? Is the “half as nutritious” thing justified? Predictably, it’s more complicated than that. I’ll reproduce the key findings verbatim (though ever so slightly edited) to preserve the nuance:

  1. In the first period, from 1940 to 1991, there were significant reductions (p < 0.05) in Na, Ca, Mg and Cu. The greatest reductions were Cu (60%) and Na (32%). There were also increases in water content. This is of interest because it shows that by 1991 the fruits and vegetables contained more water, and nutrient density (on a fresh weight basis) has consequently decreased...
  2. In the second period, from 1991 to 2019, there was a significant reduction in Fe (36%) and a significant increase in Mg (18%). There was also a further reduction in Na and increase in water that was not statistically significant (p < 0.05).
  3. The overall longer-term comparison of data from 1940 to 2019 shows that the mineral contents of fruits and vegetables remain lower than in 1940. The greatest overall reductions during this 80-year period were Na (52%), Fe (50%) Cu (49%) and Mg (10%). There was a 12% decrease in dry matter content that was not statistically significant.

Some notable reductions, then, but hard to say that fruits and vegetables are “half as nutritious” now compared to 80 years ago. Not for the first time, the Daily Mail somewhat overcooks the vegetables, as it were.

Do the reductions matter? That would, of course, depend on a bunch of other things, including whether people eat more or less of these (and other) fruits and vegetables, and whether any losses in nutrient supply from fruits and vegetables are made up from other sources. As the authors say: “For some vulnerable groups, and those with poor diets, these reductions are important because they make a bad situation worse – teenagers are at particular risk of inadequate diets.” But that assumes that teenagers are scoffing down the same amount or less of old carrots and unpeeled eating apples than formerly, which may in fact be likely but needs proof.

Anyway, there are some useful recommendations at the end of the paper, both for the UK and globally. I’ll just highlight a couple here:

  • With the seemingly systematic reductions, it is necessary to have a holistic approach rather than an approach that takes each nutrient one at a time. It is important that all foods are grown and processed in a way that optimises their nutrient content from production through to consumption.
  • Plant breeding should aim to improve a whole basket of mineral nutrients, not just targeted to one nutrient at a time, as is the current approach of biofortification programmes.

Perhaps it was too much to hope the Daily Mail would have gone for that in their headline.

  1. Otherwise known as “McCance and Widdowson’s ‘composition of foods integrated dataset’ on the nutrient content of the UK food supply.” []
  2. Cabbage – winter, carrots – old, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, peas, potatoes – old, radishes, runner beans, tomatoes, watercress, avocado, bananas, blackberries, cherries, eating apples, grapefruit, grapes, nectarines, oranges, pears, pineapple, plums, raspberries, strawberries. []

All maize, all the time

Thanks to Jay Bost for alerting us to a whole bunch of forthcoming maize talks. The first is by Dr Helen Anne Curry today, who will use her book…

Endangered Maize, to discuss the history of efforts to conserve crop diversity from the turn of the twentieth century until today. Focusing especially on the case of maize, she will highlight the stories about agricultural change that have motivated scientists and states to save threatened varieties—and raise questions about the agendas ultimately served by these stories.

The others start next month:

The National Agricultural Library is hosting a three-part webinar series that will highlight global food staples and the intersections of global cuisines with USDA research, social sciences, and history. The series will focus on maize and corn and its past, present, and future role in food, culture, and society. Key areas of focus for the series will be sustainability, environmental justice, social justice, and nutrition security.