Agricultural Biodiversity: Eat Weird Plants To Save The Earth

Eating weird plants can help protect the Earth’s ecosystems by encouraging agricultural biodiversity, and by opening up access to new sources of nutrients.

words Christina De La Rocha

The abnegation involved in not destroying what remains of Earth’s ecosystems can be, to use the technical term, a bummer. Don’t fly! Don’t drive! Stop buying so much crap and, while you’re at it, please do let them take your hamburgers away. But there’s one fun thing we can do to make global food system more sustainable, secure, and resilient in the face of climate change. Eat weird plants in place of some of the animal products, overused staple grains, and non-starchy vegetables that we consume. And weird just means almost any edible plant other than maize, wheat, rice, potatoes, and cassava.

It ought to be easy. Of the roughly 400,000 plant species known to currently exist on Earth, roughly 30,000 are edible to humans. Of that 30,000, we have cultivated 7,000 at one time or another. Multiply that 7,000 by anywhere from two to 20,000 (or more) different strains and local varieties that people have bred down through the ages, and the splendor that is the potential genetic diversity of human agricultural endeavor ought to knock your socks off, especially if you’ve been lucky enough to taste some of it.

But here is a cold, hard fact: globally, 60% of the plant calories that we eat come from wheat, maize, and rice. Most of the remainder is provided by just nine further species, including the aforementioned potatoes and cassava. Not only is that not the stuff of foodies’ dreams, it’s bad for agriculture and a catastrophe for what remains of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems.

Such a serious overreliance on just twelve plant species makes for a vulnerable food system. To make matters worse, the last century of intensification and industrialization of agriculture has also drastically reduced the number of different strains grown of what species are still grown. So while the globalization of markets has driven local increases in the variety of fruits and vegetables available (I can still recall when I first met quinoa, amaranth, kiwifruits, litchis, and kohlrabi), the big picture is one of our repertoire of crops having lost 75% of its genetic diversity over the last 120 years. This is bad not just because it is boring, but because times are getting interesting. Climate change is on the cusp of going exponential. The shifts we’re starting to see in when, where, and how much rain falls, in extremes and unseasonalities of temperature, and in the occurrence of agricultural pests are, to use a nearly relict expression, the tip of the iceberg of the challenges ahead. The foreseeable future is not when we want to depend on a small, genetically impoverished set of staple crops (see: Irish potato famine). The higher the diversity in our arsenal of cultivated plants, the more likely we are to have strains that will grow well (or at all) under altered, more extreme conditions or under assault by new or newly invasive pests and pathogens.

The second major problem with overreliance on a small handful of crops is that that’s a good way to deplete the soils and nurture plant pests and diseases, driving the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that kill the pollinators, pollute the air, and clog the waterways with noxious plankton blooms. The adjacent landscapes and ecosystems, degraded, become less hospitable to wild plants, birds, and animals that live on this planet, too, and make it a more majestic place for all of us to live.

But all is not yet lost. There are powerful things that we all can do. We can even do them without writing to our political representative, without attacking the agro-industrial complex that, let’s face it, we depend upon for food, and without resorting to clicktivism or keyboard warriorhood.

First, we can start eating a wider variety of plants. Without much effort, it’s possible to eat more than 100 distinct species/varieties on a regular basis. My life list, attained eating in such exotic locales as Southern California and northern Germany, has hit 300, if we count, for example, the various Brassica oleracea cultivars (like cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower) as separate things, but all apples merely as “apples”. It’s a great game. Oh look! They’re selling lupine “yogurt” in the store. I’ve never eaten lupine before! It’s a blast cooking Indian food and, between the vegetables, oils, hot mango pickles, rice, and spices, hitting 20 plants in single meal. But even just more frequently eating things like lentils, black eyed peas, black beans, spelt, quinoa, spinach, and buckwheat, will help us retain badly needed agricultural diversity. The more we all buy a wide variety of plants, the more a wide variety of plants will be cultivated because we will have made it worth the farmers’ while.

The second thing we can do as consumers is eat unusual strains. The Future 50 Foods report recommends, for instance, orange tomatoes. Purple carrots also come to mind, as do the heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables found on offer in farmers’ markets. They are agriculture’s storehouses of genetic diversity (not to mention taste and nutrients).

The third thing we can do, we can do if we have just the slightest space and interest in growing fruits and vegetables, and that is not just eat but grow heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables (or, if you’re really game, grains). There are tons of farmers, nurseries, and hobbyists dedicated to resurrecting and maintaining the strains of yesteryear of everything from apples to zucchini, including things we’ve maybe never heard of before like salsify and cardoon, and they take orders over the internet. It’s easy to order seeds or even trees and then get down to growing our own true lemon cucumbers, blue tomatoes, scarlet runner beans, and Limbertwig apples.

If we do any or all of these three things (stray beyond wheat, maize, and rice; eat unusual varieties of usual suspects; grow some heirloom vegetables or fruits), at the very least, we’ll reap culinary rewards and phytonutrients. But at the most, we’ll help support the biodiversity and sustainability of an agricultural system that will soon need to feed 10 billion people food every day without destroying what remains of Earth’s ecosystems in the process. That’s definitely beluga lentils for the win.