Rediscovering ancient crop varieties
Old and diverse crop varieties are packed full of nutrients and adapted to local environmental conditions. But since the 1900s, some 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost with big implications for food security.
Gravenstein: Available since 1669
Shoppers will usually find six kinds of apples in German supermarkets — all of which have a long shelf-life. Yet the country has around 2,000 regional apple varieties. Allergy sufferers tend to better tolerate older varieties, most likely because they contain high levels of polyphenol. The micronutrient is undesirable in supermarket apples because it causes brown spots when slicing the fruit.
Tomatoes of all sizes and colors
Red, yellow, black and green — tomatoes come in various colors and sizes. And while modern breeds don't spoil as quickly and are robust, they often taste bland. A 2017 study published in the journal "Science" found that heirloom varieties contain more flavor-enhancing properties than newer ones. Seemingly taste lost out in the search for larger and more durable tomatoes.
Are all potatoes yellowish and round?
The Bamberg potato is oblong, the Red Emmalie is, well, red, and the Mayan Twilight has mottled skin. But modern potato breeding relies on a small number of similar-looking varieties that promise big yields and can be farmed easily on an industrial scale. Most of Germany's 200 approved potato breeds are relatively new. In France, however, the 130-year-old "La Ratte" variety is still popular.
Heirloom corn is packed full of nutrients
Around half of the world's daily calorie intake comes from just three crops: maize, wheat and rice. Farmers rely on commercial seeds for high yields. But an increase in quantity doesn't mean an increase in quality. Studies show lower mineral concentrations in high-performance crops. Older maize varieties, for instance, have more magnesium, potassium and lutein, which are important for eyesight.
Wheat with an extra side of gluten
Higher concentrations of certain elements can have unforeseen consequences. Take gluten, for instance. It gives bread its elasticity. While old wheat varieties have higher levels of the substance, the strength of the gluten in modern varieties is seven times higher, according to research from the University of Bologna. That means it could be more difficult for us to digest modern wheat.
Ancient grains: emmer, einkorn and kamut
Modern wheat's precursors contain the sticky protein gluten too, so celiac disease sufferers also have to avoid ancient grains like emmer, einkorn and kamut. But those with gluten sensitivity can often better tolerate these varieties. Einkorn is packed with vitamin A and kamut has a lot of magnesium. All of the ancient grains have higher protein content than modern wheat, but yields are lower.
India's lost rice varieties
In the 1970s, pioneering rice researcher R. H. Richharia recorded 19,000 different rice varieties in the Indian state of Raipur. Today, just 6,000 kinds of rice are cultivated in the country. During the "Green Revolution," India began to rely on a few high-performance crops to alleviate hunger. But older rice varieties contain more minerals and vitamins and are better suited to local conditions.
The seed rebels
In many Indian states, seed cooperatives have sprung up to save regional varieties. Farmers get cheap or free seeds for sowing and after the harvest must give twice as many seeds back to the cooperative. These little co-ops are an alternative to the global seed market, which is dominated by just four big companies: Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and Limagrain.
Extreme weather and hunger
Cyclones Kenneth and Idai caused hundreds of deaths in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in 2019. The storms also destroyed infrastructure, farmland, harvests and seed reserves. Regional food security could be put at risk as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events.
Local seeds a lifeline in catastrophes
The Benefit-sharing Fund (BSF) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) helped to rebuild local seed banks in the countries hit by storms Idai and Kenneth. That meant varieties of pearl and finger millet that had once been lost and were well suited to local conditions could be cultivated in Malawi once again.
Climate change resilience
The BSF also promotes regional seeds in other countries. The Hoima Community Seed Bank in Uganda stores the seeds of more than 50 crops that are adapted to prevailing local climate and environmental conditions. Diversity in the field is also important in times of climate change. If harvests of one variety fail, other varieties will provide a backup.
An icy safe for seeds
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway, is home to the world's largest seed collection. Some 5000 plant species, including food crops and wild plants, are kept there. All are duplicates of seeds from national, regional and international gene banks and are stored around 100 meters (328 feet) inside a mountain at temperatures of minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 Fahrenheit).
Wine: Old and beloved varieties
Old grapevine varieties are something of a success story compared to other crops. For instance, Riesling was first mentioned in 1435 in Germany. Back then, the administrator of the Rüsselsheim estate near the city of Frankfurt noted just how much was being spent on Riesling vine cuttings. The Muscat grape variety is even older and was reportedly enjoyed by the Romans, Greeks and Phoenicians.