We ate what was nearby. This was still true when we invented farming 10,000 years ago, by cultivating wild plants like Teosinte in Central America and Thorn Apple in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Over thousands of years, farmers bred these wild ancestors into foods like corn and eggplant, that we would recognize today.
As humans moved around the world, so did the seeds and farmers continued to breed different varieties to adapt them to their new environments. Which led to a ton of genetic diversity. Farmers could raise different genetic varieties of different crops. If disease or pests killed one type, there were others to fall back on.
But gradually industrialization and cheap fossil fuels made us less dependent on what grew well nearby. “Food on the move, from distant parts of the world comes the great variety of foods Americans demand.” Most farmers switched from growing a variety of edible plants to a single crop that was easy to process and ship. As this model spread beyond the United States, older varieties of plants and animals disappeared from farms around the world.
By 1970, 90% of the wheat varieties that had once been grown in China were gone. As were 80% of the varieties of maize or corn that were once grown in Mexico. By the summer of 1971, more than 85% of the corn planted in the US was genetically identical. Crop scientists had bred this new corn so that it grew without a tassel, making it easier to harvest.
But because these plants were genetic copies of one another, that also made them susceptible to the same deadly fungus, Southern Leaf Corn Blight. It took over the US corn crop, costing farmers and taxpayers millions of dollars. And the damage would have continued, if it weren’t for a humble little plant called Teosinte.
The wild grass native to Oaxaca, Mexico, and the common ancestor of the 22,000 known varieties of corn. Teosinte includes a gene for resistance to the same fungus that was devastating the US corn crop. Scientists halted the damage by crossbreeding Teosinte with American corn, but that didn’t totally solve the problem of genetic diversity.
Today, more than 40% of the corn grown in the US is derived from just six inbred lines. And seed companies, driven by profit, can repackage genetic copies of the same seeds for different prices. Farmers plant them, thinking that they’re genetically diversifying their fields when really they’re not. Since the corn crisis in 1971 disease has ravaged genetically uniform crops of beans, rice tomatoes, and bananas. And it’s about to get worse.
The plants we eat have spent thousands of years evolving to grow in specific conditions, conditions we are changing rapidly by releasing more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We depend on corn, wheat, and rice for more than 60% of our global calories. And by 2050, we’ll have 2 billion more people to feed.
But because of climate change, we’ll actually be producing less of all three of these crops. We’re going to need plants that can grow in radically different conditions and the more genetic varieties we save, the better protected we’ll be.
There are seed banks all over the world where scientists, indigenous communities, and farmers are all preserving older seed varieties. But thousands have already been lost, which is why it’s so critical to preserve the genetic diversity we still have. The weird stuff, like red popcorn. And the best way to save the seeds that might save us one day, is to grow them and eat them.
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