By some estimates, the United States already has lost 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable varieties that would have been available in the early 1900s. Today, humans look to four crops — wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans — to provide 60 percent of our calories, tapping into just 1 percent of the diversity still available to us.
That’s a big concern for the Crop Trust, an international organization focused on securing the future of food through diversity. If the global food system relies on just a fraction of foods, it is not only less nutritious but also less resilient in the face of disease, pests, and a changing climate.
Take the humble banana. There are more than 1,000 types of bananas, and yet we rely primarily on one variety, the Cavendish — which is now facing potential devastation as a fungus spreads to popular growing regions. Growing such crops in monocultures, where one variety is sown across hundreds of acres, makes them more susceptible to diseases and leaves farmers with fewer alternatives should the crop fail.
Stories like these were reason enough for chef Kevin Tien to consider working the Blondkopfchen — or “blond-haired” — German tomato into a chilled salad with tom yum broth in lieu of a more common variety. He served the dish at a recent Food Forever Summit in D.C., where Crop Trust asked chefs to illustrate the urgency of food diversity by featuring lesser-used ingredients.
Fonio and amaranth can take the place of rice in a pilaf or breakfast porridge. Young jackfruit can replace shredded pork in tacos, and there’s no reason not to try a new-to-you mushroom from the farmers market.
It wasn’t a one-off: Tien works plant diversity onto the menu at his Capitol Hill restaurant, Emilie’s, as often as possible.
“As a chef, we try to be sustainable and diversify what we serve in our restaurant, but it can’t just be the chefs,” he said. “If everyone ate one…