Why We Need Crop Diversity

Image: Diversity of Crop Species

Over the past 50 years, fewer crops are feeding the world’s people and diets around the world are becoming more alike. This puts us at risk of a “globalized diet” based on major crops such as soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn–which are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands. Not only is this worse for our health but it makes global agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases resulting from a rapidly warming planet.

When the UN put out its landmark biodiversity report earlier this year, its warning that species extinction is accelerating also extended to plant species. If we’re going to feed an estimated 9.8 billion people in the world by 2050 then we must work to protect crop diversity. 

The Problem: As Phys explained, humans have domesticated wild plants for some 10,000 years to provide food but in doing so they have bred out many of their natural defenses, leaving them—and us—potentially exposed. It’s also why scientists have been on a global search for the wild relatives of our food crops, hoping to bolster their defenses against disease and climate change.

The Problem With Our Diets: We’ve grown accustomed to the food that is readily available to us, namely the aforementioned cash crops. But we have to strive to go outside of our comfort zone (if we’re able to do so) and purchase diverse foods. For instance, yesterday at an event called Food Forever put on by the Crop Trust and Foreign Policy chefs from around the DC/Baltimore area showcased what we might be eating in the future if we embrace some of the foods yet to break into the US culinary mainstream. Ingredients like Blondkopfchen cherry tomato, amaranth, chayote, and sunchoke were used to show how we might substitute diverse crops into dishes we already love like tabouli and winter soup. 

 

Why This Matters: The high crop yields we’ve sought have come at the direct expense of genetic diversity in crops which allows them to be more resilient to climate change. Crop diversity cannot be forgotten in our ag policy conversation, we have to ensure that plans for sustainable agriculture help to diversify the array of crops grown. We have to align these policies and subsidies to support a broad array of crop species (over merely cash crops) as part of our broader climate action strategy.

Go Deeper: Read more about how we got to such a low point in our crop diversity.

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