Last week I was at a wedding. The reception buffet was delicious, including the labeled "Seasonal Fruit Platter." When the person in front of me in line spotted that sign, he nudged me and asked, "In season where?" No kidding! The platter held fresh strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, blueberries, cantaloupe, and grapes, fruits which are currently in season in California, the tropics, Mexico, California, Central America, and Chile, respectively.
Now, I enjoy all these fruits, and you'll find grapes, bananas, oranges, and kiwis in my house right now, none of which were grown in Washington (the apples and pears were, however), but enjoying "never out of season" fruit comes at a price, according to author Rob Dunn.
As I mentioned last week, Dunn notes that most of the food eaten worldwide and certainly in America, comes from fewer and fewer plants. Not only does the number of plants we eat shrink with the passing of time, but the variety of the chosen plants has dwindled as well. Most famously we eat the Cavendish banana almost exclusively, but other plants don't fare a heckuva lot better. California mass-produces a few strawberry varieties that they ship all around. Unless you hit the farmers market, you're likely to be offered just two to three kinds of potato at the grocery store, and so on.
So what, you ask? So, this: in winnowing the foods we eat and then growing what are effectively clones of the same few plants all over the world, we make our food supply uniquely vulnerable. Think Irish Potato Famine vulnerable. Plant a whole country with the "lumper" potato, and when potato blight finally hitches a ride to Europe, there goes the food supply.
Dunn traces a familiar pattern through history: a few seeds get chosen for planting in a whole new environment, they outrun their natural predators and diseases for a time, then the predators and diseases catch up and threaten to wipe out the whole crop. We respond with pesticides, more furious breeding, or moving everything to a "clean slate" to buy more time. If and when we return to the plant's original habitat to look for different varieties to grow or to cross with our familiar ones, the plants and their original habitats increasingly have ceased to exist! Beloved crops like cacao (eek!) and coffee face these threats, by the way, so we all should find this an alarming trend. There are still some botanists and other scientists trying to gather and preserve not only the wonderful variety of plants that have covered the earth, but also some of the places that yielded them, and you can imagine their rate of success (not super promising).
What can we do? Unless we're adventurous botanists who want to collect specimens from marginal wildernesses (because we want plants that grow where it's hotter and drier, to prepare for our climate future), Dunn makes the following suggestion:
You can buy diverse varieties of local crops...By increasing the proportion of food that is purchased from locally grown and diverse varieties of crops, we increase the incentives farmers have to plant those varieties. We increase the incentives farmers have to find unusual varieties. And, importantly, we increase the willingness of farmers to experiment, whether with unusual crop varieties or even with the breeding of novel crop varieties...In parts of North America and Europe...local food movements have already increased the diversity of crop varieties available in seed catalogues and stores.
And where best does all this happen? At the farmers market, of course, where we can have an immediate impact with the dollars we spend. Can't wait for Opening Day! We have one more week to go, which is just enough time for you to grab a copy of Never Out of Season and get yourself inspired!