Food shopping is dull. Just think about the increasing homogeneity and uniformity of what’s on offer. Pick up a mango, for instance, and it’s likely to be the Tommy Atkins variety. All of our bananas come from a sole cultivar, the Cavendish. Look at the grapes displayed in the supermarket and odds-on they’ll be Thompson seedless. This problem extends far beyond our fruit bowls.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reports that, out of more than 6,000 plant species potentially cultivated for food, only nine account for 66 per cent of total crop production. It’s the same story with animal-based foods. Around 90 per cent of our milk, for example, comes from one breed of cow: Holstein Friesian.
This is symptomatic of the fact that the world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs that feed us. Whether we’re talking about plant varieties or animal breeds, biodiversity in our food supply has shrunk dramatically over the last few decades, a consequence of our increasingly globalised food production and retailing systems.
In other words, behind the sameness we see on shop shelves lurks a more serious concern: the gene pool of the food we eat is narrowing alarmingly, leaving us dependent on just a few plant varieties and animal breeds. This is a highly precarious situation for future food security. Look what happened during the Irish potato famine: people starved because they relied on one potato cultivar, the Lumper.
The message from history? Monocultural food production threatens the world’s ability to feed itself. It’s crucial that we have the widest gene pool so that if needs must, we can create new crop varieties and animal breeds with more disease resistance and adaptability in future testing climatic conditions. Risks apart, more interesting and varied flavours are further powerful reasons to get more biodiversity onto our plates.
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Most pork is from lean, relatively tasteless modern animals that have been bred for rapid growth, but heritage breeds, such as the Berkshire and Gloucestershire Old Spot, are so much more flavoursome. Cream or butter made from Jersey cow milk has a distinctive – I’d even say superior – taste compared to that made from the milk of Holstein Friesian cows. Give me an Alphonso mango any day, or Muscat Hamburg grapes instead of those ubiquitous Thompson seedless.
Forward-thinking producers are trying to steer us in the right direction. I was delighted to see discussions about the new British Heritage Sheep initiative, a labelling scheme that would promote biodiversity by identifying the age (lamb, hogget, mutton), breed and ‘countryside’ of the animal, or the locality on which it was raised (Herdwick lamb from Lake Coniston, for instance).
And, by increasing free availability of locally adapted seeds and reviving the knowledge and skills required to effectively grow, process and save them, the UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme is helping growers save our common seed heritage from the three corporations that currently sell 75 percent of the world’s seed.
I livened up my own food shopping immeasurably (to my great pleasure) and instantly increased its inherent biodiversity by stepping out of the supermarket and instead shopping with food producers and retailers who offer fewer cloned, monocultural choices.
Now, I seek out genetic diversity wherever I shop, consciously favouring the wildcards, rarities, and anything that’s not commonly encountered. The less standard a food product is, the more likely I am to buy it. Genetic variety represents so much more than the spice of life – it’s an indispensable requirement for that life. We must do everything we can to support it.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.