Variety is the Spice of Life

By  Gill Baker, Wangaratta Sustainability

There is a particular type of potato that is much prized by the French Fries industry, it’s reliable size, shape and frying properties ensure perfection when serving ‘fries with that’. However, inherent in this very popularity is a dark side. It’s grown in huge monocultures all over the world.  There are two elements to the dark side. One is that where a single crop is grown over vast areas, usually accompanied by the same chemical mix to ensure perfect harvest, the soil is depleted of its natural microbiology and nutrient balance, and the biodiversity of the associated ecosystems is disrupted.  Secondly, with lack of genetic diversity amongst the potatoes, the species may not survive in the face of environmental change or disease.

Genetic diversity is fundamental .  Some individuals may have characteristics that suit the new circumstances, and the larger the population, the more likely that some will survive.  It doesn’t always happen this way of course, catastrophic environmental change will cause some extinctions.

Today humans  chasing profits are having a hand in this, and it is worrying.  We seem not to have learned the lessons of the Irish potato famine, or the dust bowls of America that were once prime agricultural land.  Having just driven back from North Western Queensland, past hundreds of square kilometres of soils depleted by over cropping or  grazing, and now covered with weeds, one wonders if these paddocks will be able to feed our future generations let alone help to provide food for the world.

Faced with preserving soil health and the genetic diversity of our food crops, while feeding upwards of seven billion mouths on the planet, means we can’t return to pastoral cropping or grazing systems of past years.  Somehow a balance must be found.  Inevitably this will require the co-operation of governments, scientists, farmers, and the food industry  working together to create the necessary changes. Individuals and community groups are already saving seeds and growing ‘heirloom’ varieties of fruits and vegetables, and some countries are preserving genetic material in preparation for just such a catastrophe.  The more people being aware of these issues, and prepared to act, the more likely we will be to find this balance and withstand potential problems.