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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Spice of Life: Diminishing Food Varieties

Air Date: Week of

At grocery stores around the country, produce appears to be fairly uniform in its offerings. While many consumers find this homogeny reassuring, some scientists and nutritionists worry that this lack of variety is impacting our ability to deal with genetic changes in the future. Richard Schiffman reports from New York City on how we got where we are today.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The modern American supermarket is a vast cornucopia of fresh and processed foods from around the world within arm's reach, at prices most of us here can afford. We truly do live in a land of plenty, but this plenitude has also brought hidden problems, and some students of the food supply have begun to worry whether our current abundance has come at too high a cost. From New York City, Richard Schiffman has this special report.

(Loudspeaker in supermarket: "There's chicken cutlets on sale today, $1.99 a pound...")

SCHIFFMAN: If you're like me, you've walked down the aisles of your local supermarket countless times, and you've undoubtedly been amazed by what you've seen there in the overflowing bins and shelves.

DINOFIO: This time of year most are greens, string beans, collard greens. All greens come mostly from Florida. Also we have some vegetables coming from California, like broccoli, all types of lettuces. We have asparagus out of Chile.

SCHIFFMAN: Supermarket produce managers like Angelo Dinofio order their fruits and vegetables from every state in the Union and from nearly every country on earth. The supermarket shelves are stocked to overflowing with an incredible array of food products. But some critics suggest that this diversity is more apparent than it is real.

GUSSOW: What we really have available is 20,000 to 30,000 items in the supermarket based on a very, very narrow genetic base.

SCHIFFMAN: Joan Gussow is Professor Emeritus in Nutrition at Columbia University. She says that most of what's available at the supermarket comes from a surprisingly small number of food crops.

GUSSOW: We have 3 or 4 varieties of potatoes that are grown in the United States, and we have hundreds of varieties of French fries. That's really what we've come to. Our variety is in the innovation of the mind of the food technologist, not authentic variety.

SCHIFFMAN: In fact, most farmers are growing fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables today than they were in the past, and critics say that fewer varieties means less genetic diversity. And they claim that less genetic diversity means a food supply that's more vulnerable, especially to disease.

(Supermarket checkout counter, electronic sounds)

SCHIFFMAN: So how did it happen that our supermarkets came to stock so many products based on such a small number of crops? The reasons are complex and they involve the ways that food gets grown, shipped, and marketed.

(A tractor motor)

SCHIFFMAN: First amongst these, according to Joan Gussow, is the growth in petroleum-based agriculture.

GUSSOW: The way in which we grow food in this country has been very, very much based on the availability of cheap energy. And so we have substituted for nature's gifts, which are to control most insect pests, to recycle minerals, to recycle nutrients, to recycle water. But we have substituted inputs based on petroleum for that. We have substituted herbicides, pesticides. We've substituted tractors. We pump water with petroleum.

SCHIFFMAN: The use of oil and petrochemicals has revolutionized the way that we grow food in this country. For one thing, it's allowed for an exponential increase in the size of farms. In a matter of decades we've moved from a network of small farms typically growing lots of different things to an agriculture dominated by huge factory farms growing perhaps only one crop. Five hundred or 1,000 acres planted in, say, green beans or iceberg lettuce, and all of it tended and harvested by machines. And then there are also advances in transportation technology.

(Trucks on a highway)

SCHIFFMAN: Nothing has changed the way food gets marketed in America quite so much as the introduction of huge refrigerated trucks. It used to be that farmers had to get their produce to the market fast, before it spoiled, but that's no longer the case.

COHEN: A hundred years ago we did not have the advantage of good quality refrigeration. So a product grew every day, it had to be sold every day, it had to be consumed every day.

SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen is a food wholesaler in New York City.

COHEN: Now, with the new techniques and the new seeds and new farming methods that have been developed with our growers, we have access to product that will have a much longer shelf life. So we can afford, now to bring product from other parts of the world and other parts of the country in order to satisfy the need.

SCHIFFMAN: The result has been that the market for food products, which was once regional, has become global. Every farmer in the world is now in effect competing with every other farmer for space on distant supermarket shelves. Paul Raeburn is the science editor of the Associated Press and the author of The Last Harvest, a book on the dangers of the shrinking genetic base for American agriculture. Raeburn says only those varieties which can stand up to the rigors of modern harvesting and transport are grown today.

RAEBURN: Crops grown on that large scale have to be designed for several things that we don't always think about. They have to be grown so that all plants mature at the same time. If they're going to be mechanically harvested, the harvester has to be able to go down the rows and grab everything. They have to have certain characteristics spread into them to make them shippable. They have to last for a considerable period of time after they're harvested, remain fresh and sellable.

SCHIFFMAN: And they also have to be prolific. In recent decades, new high yield strains of vegetables, grains, and fruits such as apples have replaced a whole slew of less productive varieties. Elizabeth Ryan is an apple grower from the Hudson Valley in New York.

RYAN: High productivity has been a big priority. It's knocked a lot of these older varieties out of the loop because they may have been better in the broadest sense, and many of them were, but they don't necessarily give these intensely high yields.

SCHIFFMAN: Another factor which limits what gets grown in America is the demand of a few large customers.

(Music and voice-over: "Now start your day with McDonald's hot egg McMuffin for just 89 cents." A doorbell rings.)

SCHIFFMAN: Huge corporate buyers have a tremendous influence over the food market. The type of pea that Birds Eye likes or the potato that McDonald's uses for its French fries quickly becomes the industry standard. The large supermarket chains also have a lot to say about what gets grown. Ira Cohen says that the supermarkets are looking for produce which has a long shelf life and flawless appearance.

COHEN: Everybody, whether you're buying produce or you're buying an automobile or a pair of shoes, what looks good to you is what you will buy first. When it comes to food it's even more important.

(Voices yelling, packages being moved.)

SCHIFFMAN: If the worldwide trade in fruits and vegetables has a nerve center, it's the Hunts Point Market in the South Bronx. Huge refrigerated trucks roll into the nation's largest wholesale market at all hours of the day and night. They deliver their pallet loads of fruits and vegetables on the over one mile of unloading docks.

GORDON: We feed 22 million metropolitan New Yorkers out of this market.

SCHIFFMAN: Myra Gordon is the administrative director of the Hunts Point Market.

GORDON: We ship our products as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, as far west as Chicago, and we ship into Western Europe and the Caribbean basin every day.

SCHIFFMAN: Gordon says that the supermarkets sell us just what we ask for. She asserts that we Americans have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it.

GORDON: People are very spoiled. They want corn 12 months a year; they want tomatoes 12 months a year; they want stone fruit 12 months a year. Traditionally those items had seasons, and they were only available during a given season. Now there's always some place in the world growing something that comes in here.

SCHIFFMAN: Gordon thinks that it's a system that works for consumers. She says that the high volume sales and global reach of today's supermarket have been a tremendous benefit. And she and others are puzzled that people would criticize it.

GORDON: We are living longer, healthier lives, more productive lives, primarily because we are all eating better and we are all eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

COHEN: Here in the United States we don't have people starving because there isn't enough food available.

SCHIFFMAN: Ira Cohen runs his wholesale company out of the Hunts Point Market.

COHEN: I have a very, very limited amount of respect for people that have anything to say negative about agriculture in the United States. I feel very privileged that I live in a country that has the ability to produce this type of produce, this variety, this quality, and allows us all to eat better than people have in time immemorial.

SCHIFFMAN: Americans do enjoy the most bountiful and cheapest food supply in the world. We spend on average only 12% of our incomes on food. Europeans pay over twice that much. But the question for many critics, like Joan Gussow, is whether all of this can last.

GUSSOW: Because of the way we grow, because of our carelessness at maintaining genetic resources, because of the concentration of power over food and how narrow the base has become of what companies will buy, this sort of abundance that we have in the supermarket is kind of very perilous.

SCHIFFMAN: In particular, author Paul Raeburn worries that by growing vast tracts of genetically identical crops, we are becoming more vulnerable to diseases, like the potato blight which decimated Ireland in the 1840s, and which has just recently reappeared, this time on North American shores.

RAEBURN: In Maine last year, in 1994, farmers lost about 30% of their crop. Maine potatoes are one of the mainstays of that state's economy. New York lost about half of its crop. And the blight is back this year and likely to be worse.

SCHIFFMAN: Raeburn says that infestations like the potato blight don't have to be devastating so long as we maintain a healthy diversity of crop varieties and cultivation.

RAEBURN: If you plant all one variety and a pest or disease comes along that can attack that one, you're wiped out. If you have a variety of different corn types growing in your fields, and a pest or a disease comes along as they always do, it's likely to attack one or two or three of the varieties but not all of them.

SCHIFFMAN: When a new pest shows up, Raeburn says it's essential that plant breeders have a large stock of different seeds with which to develop resistant strains. But he claims that these priceless genetic reserves are being lost. Raeburn cites as an example the woefully under-funded seed bank run by the US Department of Agriculture. Instead of being replanted, the seeds are dying on the shelves, and our capacity to protect our food supply against crop blights is diminishing with them. Raeburn adds that there is no market for us which will demand genetic diversity in agriculture, so government must take the lead in preserving it.

RAEBURN: We need to conserve the resources in the seed banks. We need to conserve the wild places where wild crop relatives grow, so that we have the material available to solve the problem. We want to save those habitats so that we can continue to explore and look for other potentially useful plants for agriculture.

SCHIFFMAN: Others hold that since small farms are reservoirs of genetic diversity, keeping them in business is crucial. If the supermarkets stocked more regional fruits and vegetables in season, they say, there would be an even greater variety of produce for all of us to enjoy. And as apple grower Elizabeth Ryan reminds us, variety is, after all, the spice of life.

RYAN: It's the same reason why we don't want to have one kind of people in the world. I mean, 50 kinds of apples, I have apples that are sweet, I have apples that are tart, I have apples that are sweet-tart, I have apples that are as hard as a rock, they're like a piece of wood almost, and I have apples that just melt in your mouth. In our case, our customers love that we have all these different varieties. And the more varieties we have for them, the happier they are.

SCHIFFMAN: The growing popularity of farm stands, farmer's markets, and specialty food stores, does seem to indicate that consumer want more variety than is usually offered to them. Elizabeth Ryan believes that the supermarkets and growers alike are beginning to get the message, too. And that's a hopeful sign, she says, that more of America's agricultural diversity can be preserved. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman in New York.



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