Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Case of the Contract Killer

The Case of the Contract Killer

Violetta di Chioggia, Rosa Bianca Solanam melongena, Tom Thumb Latuca Sativa.

Recognize any of these names? Seen any of their faces around recently? No? This may come as a shock, but these are just a few of thousands who’ve gone missing. In fact, they’re on a hit list.

Oh, and did I mention they’re vegetables. Does that make a difference? It shouldn’t.

You see, we humans are accomplices in what could very well be our own demise. We’ve (if not knowingly) allowed a few corporations to whittle down our variety of food crops from thousands to a handful. I can see the mugshot of that herbicide-burping superbug now, chomping down and wiping another crop from our increasing paltry list. No, really, come back to the table and listen – you eat? Then this affects you.

We humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species over time. Now, three-quarters of all our produce comes from just eight species and, as biologist, author and locavore Barbara Kingsolver tells it, the field is “quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy, and canola.” Our food crops, Kingsolver says, could well make an endangered species list. We are, quite simply, undermining the security of our very own food system.

With genetically modified foods, we’re further undermining the security of that system with crop species being held against their will by a handful of powerful corporations intent on fooling around with their genes. Splicing together traits that aren’t even nodding acquaintances in nature can produce a vigorous plant for one generation, but the next generation is likely unpredictable and has no staying power.

But let’s back up and see how and why these disappearances started. Well, it has to do with the craving for tomatoes (or raspberries) at a time when even songbirds are sucking on dried up dogberries. And it also has to do with advances in long distance trucking. You see, up until the middle of last century, most North Americans were still eating fruits and vegetables that came from nearby farms, which also meant eating in season. Then marketers realized a market for out-of-season produce, like those tomatoes (or raspberries) titillating the taste buds of a society that was getting used to instant gratification. And then those tomatoes (or raspberries) needed larger and refrigerated trucks, and a super highway system to get these aliens to market.

Enter agribusiness into the contract. New breeds of produce were bred so that those tomatoes (or look at any produce at your local grocery retailer) could stand up to mechanized picking, packing, shipping and displaying on supermarket shelves. This uber tomato proved it could go the distance, but a few things got lost in the meantime: like flavour, often pest resistance and, no surprise, genetic diversity. There can, after all, only be one uber tomato, so uniformity and blandness became the trade-off signatures. Long distance travel, says Kingsolver, lies at the heart of the plot to murder flavourful fruits and veggies. Then the agribusiness breeding of indestructible produce ensured a market for tennis ball-like tomatoes. Farmers had little choice but grow what people (thought they) wanted, and seed catalogue offerings dropped more and more old-time trusted varieties. Today, not only plant varieties but whole species have been lost while six companies—Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis, and Dow—now control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales.

There’s a few organizations that are on the look out for Violetta and friends. Slow Food International promotes agricultural biodiversity and has a twist on the save-the-endangered species line. Eat it. To save those rare species, the seed must be grown, plant harvested and eaten. Ditto that heirloom pig.

Closer to home, groups such as FEASt (Food Education Action – St. John’s), Farmers’ Markets and community gardens are springing up across the province, putting local food back on the menu and in the minds of residents.

Bottom line? Come clean. Don’t continue to be an accomplice to contract killing. Eat local. Reject uniformity. Check out grandma’s garden. Dissent. And have a flavourful day.

© Alison Dyer 2009