That’s right. The rise of the Industrial Revolution, and our new-found trust in technology, coincide with the beginning of the thoughtless squandering of our most precious resource: the plants and the animals that we feed off.
Jim Richardson had some slides, interspersed among his many photographs, to prove the point: between 1903 and 1983, the number of varieties of lettuce grown in the United States went from 497 to 36. There were only 79 varieties of tomato left in 1983, compared to 408 eighty years before. And that’s only a tiny sample. The sad story repeats the world over. Ditto for farm animals, with at least one-third of the heirloom breeds either endangered or extinct.
I’m most grateful to Jim Richardson for his mention of Nikolay Ivanovitch Vavilov. Born in 1887, the Russian agricultural scientist is the “father” of research on agricultural biodiversity. Keen to find varieties of wheat that would withstand the Russian harsh climate, hence putting an end to repeated famines in his native homeland, Vavilov traveled the world in search of cultivated-biodiversity heavens. His reasoning was that the region that holds the highest number of varieties of a plant, is the region where this particular plant originated. In the process, he mapped the Centers of Diversity of Cultivated Plants.
His findings still make authority today. Incidentally, he was the founder of the first seed bank in history, an involved affair in Stalingrad, defended during the Second World War against the long German siege by loyal employees who starved to death rather than consuming the seeds under their care. Sadly, about half of the seed collection is unusable today, as maintaining it is an expensive endeavor that involves growing the seeds to “recycle” them. This story, and many more as they relate to us today, were told in the fascinating book “Where Our Food Comes From”, by Gary Paul Nabhan.