Abundance of food a ‘myth,’ according to plant hunter
SALEM — One of the best ways to preserve and expand crop biodiversity is to distribute seeds to as many gardeners and farmers as possible, Nate Kleinman of the Experimental Seed Network here told the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey Winter Conference on Saturday, Jan. 30.
Kleinman is co-founder of the Experimental Farm Network and a NOFA-NJ board member.
He has traveled the world looking for species of plants that can be introduced to the farms and tables of people who would never otherwise experience them.
The goal is more than epicurean excitement, however.
Whether purple peppers or Bhutan cucumbers, white currents or Mandarin kumquats, the produce helps increase the diversity of crops during a time when diversity is decreasing in most parts of the world, especially the United States.
Even in places famous for their diversity of crops such as the Northern Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal, farmers are getting older and young farmers aren’t farming as many different crops, he said.
Parts of California and the Pacific Northwest have very little diversity of crops, Kleinman said.
He described the notion of food abundance as a “myth” because most food is produced with limited basic ingredients.
There are more than 6,000 cultivated species, but the vast majority of people consume about 200.
There are nine that make up the vast majority of cultivated crops: sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soy, palm fruit, sugar beets and cassava.
Increased bio-diversity is needed if we are to be more resilient to climate change, Kleinman pointed out. Humans need to understand and to plant many different crops if they want to survive extremes of weather.
There are solutions to the problem, one being developing a landrace, defined as a local cultivar or animal breed that has been improved by traditional methods. Often these thrive away from their point of origin and provide benefits elsewhere.
One example given by Kleinman is the Naticoke squash cultivated by the Naticoke Lenape around the Delaware and Chesapeake bays.
Taken by early British seamen because squash keeps well on shipboard. it is considered a heirloom varietal as are other squash varieties around the world that may have similar origins with little or no current presence in the area of origin.
Cultivars specifically adapted to a local environment are closely linked to the history and culture of that place.
Unfortunately, often scientists collected these cultivars without compensation or respect for the traditions of the area, which brings up ethical considerations, Kleinman said.
Returning them to their native area can be important to the people who farm there. That’s known as “repatriation,” but Kleinman said “rematriation” would be a better term since they are the mother plants of varieties.
Preserving a species where it starts is important to the community and for the continuation of that species.
Kleiman noted there is hardly any place on earth not upended by invasive species.
It can be equally important from a cultural standpoint to return cultivars to a community settled by immigrants from far away as was done for a group of Syrian refugees, he said.
The Experimental Seed Network tries to increase diversity in several ways, including through local seed banks and seed saver exchanges.
Some of the larger seed saving groups specialize in particular seeds such as those from dry areas or tropical climates.
There have been efforts to collect sees since the late 19th Century, Kleinman said.
Seeds were collected from around the world, from communities that no longer exist.
“It’s really important to think all the time where your seeds come from,” Kleinman said, adding that there are important ethical, moral and practical reaons.
He encouraged the farmers and gardeners in his audience to create a program, save seeds or just keep planting them and to always be cognizant of what large-scale farmers are doing.