When most of us think about bio-diversity - not that many of us think about it very often or for very long - we think of koala bears, whooping cranes and right whales facing extinction. The creatures that come to mind are wild, free and noble, and something about them speaks to us. In wilderness-saving circles they're known as "charismatic megafauna."
But on this World Food Day (Saturday, October 16), many are worrying about the tame and domesticated side of the biodiversity coin, where the rate of extinction is multiples higher and faster than anything happening in the wild.
The UN's food and agriculture organization estimates that three-quarters of genetic diversity in agriculture was lost over the last century. What's happening in the wild is a blip on the screen.
The world's food supply eggs are in very few baskets. Nine crops account for three-quarters of the plants consumed by humans. About 75 varieties of vegetables dominate the marketplace, a mere 3 per cent of what was available in veggies a century ago.
Seven thousand varieties of apples and 2,500 kinds of pears have been lost across North America since 1900. Six types of corn are now grown across most of North America, and 96 per cent of older breeds have been lost. We rely on four of the approximately 5,000 kinds of potatoes nourished by Peru's native settlers several thousand years ago.
Enter the seed savers, the on-the-land heroes dedicated to collecting and cataloguing the fruits of human agricultural history. When I met Dan Jason this summer, I had no idea that his tiny seed company on hippie-dippie Salt Spring Island was linked to a cause that's been picked up this year by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which has designated biodiversity the theme of World Food Day.
Jason dropped by for an inspection at Stowell Lake Farm, which grew several rare varieties of beans and tomatoes for his seed company, halfway through my first day on the job. I was crawling through a patch of beans, so we agreed to meet and talk later.
When I dropped by his place nestled in a valley bottom on the grounds of a yoga centre, the lean and muscular Jason was stooped over a 5-gallon pail pouring a stinky slime of fermented tomatoes. If you let the slushy part of the tomato with seeds in it ferment for a few days, the seeds sink to the bottom, and the fermentation protects them from diseases, he tells me.
Later that day, Jason will let those seeds air on a horizontal window screen placed above a drying table, then place 30 of each seed type in a packet that will be sold for $3 to one of the Salt Spring Seed Company's list of 6,000 avid gardeners across North America.
A former bartender, Jason is well trained in swapping stories. The Celina wide green bean was a gift from a Portuguese immigrant to Vancouver Island, and Baba Franchuk garlic was a gift that came from Winnipeg, he says. Many of the 1,000 breeds of plants he grows on his land come with a story about a gift.
This crawling, stooping, packaging, storied, freely shared kind of peasant-style seed saving is what has produced thousands and tens of thousands of varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. These ancient methods might sound far removed from the patented science and space-age technology behind corporate seed labs, but they're how nearly all the foods people eat today came into being.
For all the scientific innovation claimed by modern seed corporations often linked to oil, chemical and pharmaceutical giants, they haven't developed many new, non-peasant food products besides canola and kiwi, Jason likes to say. To the contrary, the corporate seed sellers of today distribute a tiny fraction of the diverse agricultural seeds and plants commonly available just 100 years ago.
The disappeared breeds were deemed unfit for commercial food production. Their seed, fruit or root was too fragile to be harvested by machinery, didn't withstand long-haul transit and storage or didn't look the way magazine ads showed they were supposed to look.
In the unnatural selection process that dominated food industry thinking, science and regulation, no one had the out-of-the-box smarts to ask if these terminated varieties had specific flavours, contained particular nutrients, were adapted to unusual climates or able to ward off certain diseases.
And now it's too late to ask. With the same humility and sense of historical time that let the computer industry get away without programming for Y2K, the seed industry got away without programming for an era of global warming and global disease vectors. Oops.
For all its popularity, the tomato is one of the most endangered of all the world's crops, says Jason. Some 80 per cent of varieties have been lost in the last 100 years.
The banana tells the cautionary tale of what happens when unregulated industrial standards overlook the fact that variety is the spice of life. It's expected that bananas will vanish from shelves within a decade, courtesy of a strategy of grafting seedless bananas onto banana stalks.
The über-banana - so uniformly pretty, predictably tasty and so cloned as to be incapable of adapting or mixing it up with traits from hardier bananas - has become such easy prey for so many pests that neither bananas nor plantation workers can bear up under the torrent of pesticides. And all the world's banana republic horses and men cannot put the banana together again.
Heading off that assault on diversity is "the most radical idea germinating today," says Jason. In their own backyards, people can grow food from heritage seeds and swap these seeds with their neighbours until governments and seed companies come to their senses.
"I have faith that people can change," he tells me as he fondles the pods of some Black Jet soybeans, the very beans that government farm agents told him 20 years ago could not be grown on Salt Spring Island.