Picture a banana. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Yellow, green, maybe a beautiful ripe brown, ready to be flambeed, or maybe you’re even picturing it in a sundae? Here’s something crazy about that banana: we are all likely picturing the exact same kind. The banana of the US market, namely the Cavendish, is a prime example of what we call a monoculture — basically, when one variety of a crop is produced.
Monocultures have become a norm in industrialized agriculture. A large number of these farms produce only two different crops, which are likely bought as seed from a large company that also produces the chemicals to keep those crops somewhat happy within their soil, and free from pests. They are then grown in large quantities, in large fields where another type of plant isn’t seen for miles.
Here’s the problem: monocultures are both contributing to and largely suffer from climate and environmental change. Chemicals used in those fields such as pesticides and excess nitrogen wash into our water sources and create dead zones. The soil becomes less and less viable, leading to less and less nutritious foods. Pests moving north due to climate change can overwhelm fields that have only one type of crop, which leads to further chemicals needed. In a similar vein, diseases are able to wipe out large swaths of crops, because they are all the same variety (for an example of this rooted in history, check out the Irish Potato Famine.) Not only that, but according to the Slow Food Foundation, we have irreversibly lost 75% of our edible plant varieties, and in the United States, that number is up to 95%.
What’s the answer? Simple: biodiversity in our diets and biodiversity at our farms. We want to keep those edible plant varieties, and we want to encourage and support mindful farming that saves our planet.
So what is the average eater supposed to do? Check out these suggestions for ways you can support biodiversity in agriculture as a consumer:
Avoid processed foods.
Your dollar is an important tool for voicing what you believe in. A lot of the subsidy crops popular with monocultures, like wheat, corn, and soy, live in the middle aisles of your local grocery store. Avoid those sections of boxes and aim for local produce and products, or shop at a farmers market.
Observe your protein sources
Another big destination for monoculture crops is the CAFO – or confined animal feeding operation- by way of animal feed. By understanding how your chicken, beef or pork was raised, and making decisions based on that knowledge, you are able to advocate for your agricultural belief system with your dollars. You can also lessen your consumption of animal protein to make a similar kind of statement (#meatlessmondays, anyone?)
Try new foods at your local farmers market
In a small-scale way, you can advocate for more biodiversity in your most local area by talking to your farmers and trying foods you might not have normally picked up. Even as adults, we can make a conscious effort to try new foods — for example, I had never had a lemon cucumber before, and picking up one to try at TLC Farms was incredibly exciting. By supporting local farmers, small businesses can continue bringing new and exciting things to my plate.
Here’s the most exciting part! You can take part in creating biodiversity in your area by just having it in your garden, and participating in seed-saving. Seed-saving is the practice of letting part of your garden go to seed, and saving those seeds for future use. It is a part of our human heritage, something our ancestors did ever since we started farming, and it’s something that is still happening in our communities.
Poesis Farm is a seed-saving farm working with SEEDS at the Historic Barns Park in Traverse City. They are growing and harvesting seed for both their purposes, as well as growing seeds from Nature & Nurture in Ann Arbor, and Ark of Taste for the Slow Food Foundation. At Poesis, Jamie Schaub and Brenin Wertz-Roth “think about farming way beyond the goals of market farming.” Between rows of heirloom tomatoes named after people like Djena Lee, and amongst the hybrid amaranth in the rainbow garden, Poesis is creating a legacy of cultural heritage in food and seeds, and reclaiming biodiversity. To quote Wertz-Roth, “seeds have stories, and maybe people will take care of their plants better if they know their stories.”
According to Wertz-Roth, the most important thing to save is diversity. If more people grow seeds, and grow different types of plants, we are able to create a denser and more resilient food system that can sustain future generations.
How can you start to take part? You can pick up Poesis seeds at their seed swaps, and follow them on their social media to make sure you are at the next one. You can also check out your local library — the Traverse City Public Library has a seed library you can “borrow” from to grow your own biodiverse garden — but be sure to return some of the seeds you collect so that it remains a renewable resource. There are also resources such as the Michigan Seed Library Network, or the Central Michigan Seed Swap. You can also find out more about the process with this great Atlas Obscura article.
These are just some of the ways you can create a more sustainable food network for your community — if you have another, please let us know!
Claire Butler is the Communications and Outreach Intern for Taste the Local Difference. She is a current culinary student at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute. Contact her at [email protected]