Monday, October 17, 2016

Seven Years: A Blogiversary Post and Squash

On October 15th 2009,  I wrote the first substantive post on this blog (although technically My Munchable made its debut on the 11th). Under that third Blog Action Day's (BAD) theme of climate change, the logical subject was growing food, having recently returned from working on a small organic farm. Since then, we have cycled through a variety of topics from water resources to human rights and equality. However, this year there is no official theme; the organizers have suggested writing on "whatever you are most passionate about". Oh, no problem, there are only like a million things I feel passionate about (ok, exaggeration...). But then two things happened: World Food Day announced its theme of climate change adaptation and this article ran in the New York Times. We've come full circle.

The article introduces Sarah Frey, a midwestern farmer who just happens to be the largest supplier of pumpkins in the U.S. But what made news is her effort to shift public perception of pumpkins from ornamental to edible, to bring variety back to winter squash. Every now and then I muse about starting a pumpkin farm. While mostly in jest (unless you know of any eligible young farmers...), this draw to growing things stems not only from the physical connectedness to the land, but also an appreciation for the beauty and necessity of diversity among what we grow. I wanted to spend the rest of this post talking about just that - the vast potential of we can grow. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over 250,000 types of plants have been document to grown in agricultural systems, yet a mere 3% are actually in use today. To further restrict that, three quarters of our food comes from just 12 crops, and rice, wheat, and maize comprise the bulk of that.

Now say instead this represented the collective expanse of wild plants and animals on the planet, and you were an ecologist or a conservation scientist. This would be tragic; people would be outraged that so much biodiversity had been allowed to ebb away. On one hand, this means the loss of considerable genetic diversity, reducing the chance of traits and mutations that might better suit a shift in climate or ecology. On the other hand, a focus of breeding efforts and training on just a handful of crops has probably contributed to the erosion of local diets. In some cases this has improved nutrition and reduced the prevalence of undernourishment related ailments (e.g. vitamin A deficiency and blindness), but in many instances this is leading to homogenization of diets. Our ubiquitous staples also seem to have very particular requirements in terms of optimal growing conditions - water, nutrients, etc. - that make them not-so-very adaptable to inter-annual variation and change over time.a

Wayward cabbage among squashes at Borough Market
So if we're talking about agriculture and climate change, a lot of the arguments around maintaining biodiversity go back to resilience theory - building redundancy into agriculture as an insurance mechanism. But back to the pumpkins. These thick-skinned orbs are not exactly at the heart of food security; yet it's hard to imagine the beauty of diversity more evident than in this collection of colourful cucurbites. While relegated to three species, the hundreds of varietals of Cucurbita maxima, moschata, and pepo span all sorts of shapes, sizes and shades. In the grocery store you may see only the typical butternut, acorn, and occasional spaghetti (unless you're in Oz, and Kents and Blues seem particularly prevalent), as with so many food crops the industry has downsized and streamlined. But pumpkins may also be at risk due to climate change. Perhaps we shouldn't let diversity slide too far; a little nudge from consumer demand may go a long way.

Finally, with Halloween only a couple of weeks off, it's also important to make sure your pumpkin doesn't contribute to climate change! Make sure to compost the remains...or better yet, cook it up before it goes off.

Read Previous B.A.D. Posts
BAD 2011: At What Cost?
BAD 2010: Water

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