What do ketchup, french fries, and coffee all have in common? Each is a product of plants — tomatoes, potatoes, and coffee beans — which are totally fucked.
Let’s focus in on french fries. (Disclaimer: I’ll get hyper-specific for a bit, but bear with me.)
The parent of the modern day french fry is the Russet-Burbank potato. This potato strain was once one of the hundreds of potato strains, all native to the southernmost regions of South America. Come the Columbian Exchange of the 15th and 16th centuries, these potato strains spread all over the world. Fast forward to WWII: American soldiers were abroad in Belgium, where they fried potatoes. When the soldiers returned to the United States, they created a market for fried potatoes — or french fries.
The Russet-Burbank potato is the most uniform potato strain in size, shape, and taste; this strain of potato was the most desirable for the American staple. To minimize cost and maximize the profit of fry production, the Russet-Burbank is now the most widely cultivated of all potatoes.
Today, the Russet-Burbank potato is one of only four cultivated potato strains. Four, down from hundreds, after only a few centuries. Monoculture, the annual cultivation of only one crop in an area, has crippled a species by reducing genetic diversity in potatoes.
Even if you disregard the ethical issue of impacting an entire species, loss of genetic diversity has a huge impact on humans. Genetic diversity in any species allows for that species to defend itself against threats such as disease, pests, or, say, a changing climate. As genetic diversity declines, susceptibility to extinction increases.
If you put two and two together, you’ll see that the loss of genetic diversity in the potato species means the potato is way more vulnerable to outside threats. The result? A potential bye-bye to mashed potatoes, hash browns, potato vodka (I know, God forbid), and, of course, french fries.
The potato trend is representative of losses in genetic diversity among our most valued staples. Tomatoes, coffee beans, corn/maize, rice, and many other crops have faced the same losses; “since the beginning of the [20th] century, about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost” (Shand, 2000).
Climate change only makes matters worse. Warming climates create more environments comfortable for pest and disease which are simultaneously inhospitable for crops.
Unfortunately, it’s a pretty bleak outlook for some of our favorite snacks. There are solutions, though. Environmentalists and biologists around the world are working to recover crop genetic diversity. In a northern Peru community, almost 130 native potato varieties have been recovered and cataloged (Lima, 2016).
Efforts to research the wild relatives of our favorite crops are essential to increasing genetic diversity and preventing future threats of food insecurity. Gene banks, physical stocks of diverse seeds, are a great way to ensure we don’t lose entire crop species (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, FAO).
In a world where kids growing up in cities think their Gogurts grow from the grocery store, where most of us don’t see the life cycle of the food we consume, it’s difficult to contextualize the importance of this issue. It matters. Food prices can go up, food quantity can go down, and the people who will suffer these consequences the most are the ones who already are food insecure.
You can help out by caring. Exercise your consumer power and reduce how much you buy from huge, monoculture corporations. Buy local and organic and seek out the farmers who prioritize multi-culture cultivation. We don’t want to lose our french fries.
– Lindsay Luchinsky