When we first moved into the small French village where we live, our elderly neighbors brought over some peaches from their orchard. They weren’t peaches I’d ever seen – greenish-grey, furry enough to be mammal rather than plant, and upon pulling them open, they were burgundy red inside. They tasted like they’d been marinated in port wine then dipped in raspberries. A pêche de vigne (vineyard peach) variety local to France, and our neighbor’s family has been growing them for at least three generations.
The topic today isn’t biodiversity across all kinds of farmed livestock and produce (i.e. lots of different kinds of fruit or vegetables or cattle), but diversity within the same kind of produce (lots of different kinds of peaches, or eggplants, or sheep).
While there has been an increasing focus on ‘heirloom’ varieties of various kinds of produce in some areas, there is more to it than having a broader assortment of flavors from which to choose, or supporting organic farms. A single variety of a given plant is simply more susceptible to disease and climate variations outside of its optimum range.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES – an equivalent to the UN panel on climate change (IPCC) – has been discussing the decline in diversity among farmed plants and livestock breeds at the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity in Norway.
IPBES founding chair Zakri Abdul Hamid said there are 30,000 edible plants worldwide, but only 30 crops account for 95 percent of the energy in human food. This list is headed by rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum.
Globalization has led to more homogeneity and a narrowing range of food preferences and tastes, while local and traditional breeds of livestock (or varieties of plants) are exchanged for fewer varieties that yield more meat, milk, volume, bruise less easily during transport, look like they’re ‘supposed to’, are the only ones promoted by a seed company, etc.
Like other plants and animals in the wild, domesticated plants and animals are undergoing a certain level of extinction due to climate change and lack of robust diversity. From Reuters: “Zakri said it was ”more important than ever to have a large genetic pool to enable organisms to withstand and adapt to new conditions.” That would help to ensure food for a global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050 from 7 billion now.”
I don’t know how widely spread the peach trees next door are in France – I’ve never seen them in a supermarket here, but I do see the occasional market stand that carries them – and I always buy them.
After all, my neighbor only has one tree left, and a large family.
A small history note on ‘heirloom’ peach varieties: Recorded history of peach cultivation goes back over 2000 years, in China. From there, the peach was brought to Persia and the Middle East, from where it was imported to the European region by Alexander the Great. It was a favorite fruit of Louis XIV, and we can thank both him and Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, Royal Gardener and French agronomist, for creating no less than 34 varieties of peach during the reign of the Sun King.
Reuters article – Decline in biodiversity of farmed plants, animals gathering pace by Alister Doyle
Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) website
Tronheim Conferences on Biodiversity website