JULIANA and Elisa, a mother and daughter who farmed just outside the city of Hunuco, Peru had only one acre of land in this mountainous landscape, but they grew dozens of local varieties of potatoes and corn, along with other crops. And they knew each of their varieties by a common name – mostly in their Quechua language.

Potatoes are native to the Andes, and over 4,000 varieties are grown there now. They come in numerous shapes, sizes and colors – red, yellow, purple, striped and spotted. A colourful mound of them resembles the bold, burnished colors of locally woven shawls. This wide array of types is an example of agrobiodiversity – a genetic legacy created by natural selection interacting with cultural practices over thousands of years.

Today, however, agrobiodiversity is declining in many countries. In Mexico farmers are cultivating only 20% of the corn types that were grown there in 1930. More than 95% percent of known apple varieties that existed in the United States in 1900 are no longer cultivated.

Corn or maize (jagung in Malay) actually has many varieties. Photo: FotoFloridian/Visual Hunt

According to Bioversity International, an international research and policy organisation, just three crops – rice, wheat and maize – provide more than half of plant-derived calories consumed worldwide. This is a problem because our diets are heavy in calories, sugar and saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables.

But there also are bright spots, such as Andean potatoes. In a recent article, Stef de Haan of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture called for a major effort to strengthen agrobiodiversity for the future.

Consuming many different species and varieties provides a diet that offers many unique tastes and a wide selection of nutrients that humans need to thrive. It also can help ensure more stable food systems and the needed variety of desirable genetic traits, such as hardiness.

Generally, agrobiodiversity is significantly lower in wealthy nations, where the industrial food system pushes toward genetic uniformity. For example, federal agriculture policy in the US tends to favour raising large crops of corn and soybeans, which are big business.

Crop subsidies, federal renewable fuel targets and many other factors reinforce this focus on a few commodity crops. In turn, this system drives production and consumption of inexpensive, low-quality food based on a simplified diet.

The lack of diversity of fruit and vegetables in the American diet has contributed to a national public health crisis that is concentrated among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Low agrobiodiversity also makes US agriculture more vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change.

Potatoes come from the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia. Photo: International Potato Centre

So far, farmers in Hunuco and elsewhere in Peru prefer to grow both their traditional crops and new ones if possible. But discussions of new initiatives to extend the reach of such “improved varieties“ reflect how these challenges will continue to evolve. We also are analysing local impacts of the global spread of inexpensive, low-quality industrial foods.

Juliana, Elisa and their Hunuco neighbours increasingly depend on staples such as rice and sugar and on heavy use of cooking oil. Many of them still grow high-agrobiodiversity crops, but on a smaller scale, and these crops play a shrinking role in their diets. It is important to counter this trend by revaluing these nutritious foods, both for human health and for the environmental benefits that agrobiodiversity brings. – AP