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Food and drink

A tale of the planet’s 30 super food plants. Or everyone be nice to Norway in case things go really bad

I came across this statement the other day and it stopped me in my tracks:

The modern supermarket is deceptive in the variety it offers. When the packaging is removed, it reveals that 95 per cent of our global nutritional needs are derived from a mere 30 kinds of plants. Three-quarters of our diet is based on only eight crops - a far cry from the 80,000 plants the world offers as potentially edible species.

It's from Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management . And no, it was not written by James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis back in the late 1970s first alerted us to the idea of Earth as a "living" planet. (Lovelock, by the way, is currently on tour, at age 90, promoting his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning . It features on its cover a startlingly red planet Earth floating in a sea of black, rather than the usual Spaceship Earth orb of sympathetic blue.)

This graphically rich atlas, originally edited by Oxford's world-renowned conservationist and author, Dr. Norman Meyers, is a collaborative work of amazing breadth and depth by scientists from around the world, from Amnesty International to the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences. Given Lovelock's "final warning" it's not such a bad book to pull out and contemplate right now.

But back to the "super"market featuring, essentially, 30 plants - fresh, frozen, canned, ground, baked, processed or what have you. It all depends on where in the world you are as to which of the magical 30 feed you the most.

In the top 24, we find watermelons in the number 24 position, surely a delight here in Canada on a summer's day, but not a food that springs immediately to mind when considering the major food league out of 80,000 edible contenders.

From there, moving up the annual crop production list, we find yams, cotton seed (for oil - check that cracker box label), rye, sugar beets, peanuts, coconut, millet, apples, oranges and bananas, in that ascending order. Nice to see bananas topping boring old rye, unless you're a whiskey drinker, and I'm not sure they consider that nutritional, at least not yet.

Yes, we find dozens of other plant products on our food shelves, but they definitely play a minor role next to the top eight heavy hitters that supply three-quarters of the nutritional needs of people around the world. Wheat remains in the top spot, as it has for centuries, followed by rice; maize and potatoes (tied for third place, more or less); barley; sweet potatoes; cassava; and, believe it or not, grapes, and we aren't talking about wine production here.

The list alone is telling, for in northern climes we barely think of a crop such as cassava, also known as manioc or tapioca, as a major source of nutrition. But in countries like Brazil and Paraguay, where cassava originated, as well as Thailand, Nigeria, Zaire and Indonesia, it's a major staple.

Likewise, sweet potatoes. Sure, we like to have them for Thanksgiving or the occasional dinner with ham, or maybe oiled and baked like French fries. But they're not really on the radar screen in Canada as a main part of our diet, at least not like they are in places such as Israel, Argentina or even China, where in some areas sweet potatoes are relied upon more than rice.

In the "middle zone" of plant-based nutritional supply, we have soybeans, sugar cane, tomatoes, oats and sorghum, a grain-like food crop that, again, we barely consider as food in places like Canada. But this drought tolerant crop is extremely important in Africa, Central America and South Asia, and may become more so as we face changing rain and temperature patterns with climate change.

At the present rate of extinction, as many as 60,000 plant species, or about one quarter of the world's total, may be lost or endangered within the next 50 years due to all sorts of factors, all of them manmade, including pollution, habitat encroachment and, of course, climate change.

Against this backdrop, there are more mouths than ever to feed, so worldwide all kinds of members of civil society, including scientists, are looking at all sorts of solutions, especially those to protect the 30 precious food crops.

Some are bent on saving "unimproved" seeds - the old, original types of seeds generated before cross-pollination and seed improvement programs. These include the "proto" potatoes still cultivated in the highlands of Peru from which all potato varieties sprung, and Oryza nivara , commonly known as Indian wild rice, the ancient progenitor of most of the world's current rice crops, and a seed which is resistant to certain rice viruses.

Others are also bent on saving "improved" seed - seed that generates most of our commercial food crops today. The government of Norway, for instance, is financing and maintaining the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on a small island off the coast of Norway.

There, seeds from 286,000 plants, including all major food crops, are being stored in case of war, disease, plague or climate change. The seeds are kept at the end of a 400-foot tunnel at an optimal temperature - minus 4 C - maintained by a cooling system. They're expected to last for 1,000 years, not such a stretch given barley seeds have sprouted that were 2,000 years old, likewise wheat that was almost the same age.

Given the challenge of feeding more people - 50 per cent more people on planet Earth by 2040, as predicts the demographers - and increasing pressure from environmental degradation, which is being further compounded by those additional 3.5 billion humans that will soon be running around, it's no wonder scientists are also increasingly exploring genetically modified food crops, such as drought-tolerant rice and more productive maize and sorghum.

While Europeans have been out front in resisting GMOs, especially in their insistence on the labelling of same, North Americans have so far only been vocal in their protestations. A few years from now, though, this all may seem a little self-righteous and pie-eyed as many scientists argue that the genetic engineering of food crops may be the only way to prevent catastrophic famines in the future - famines that will most likely occur in equatorial regions.

Given our ever diverging realities between north (temperate climates) and the south (primarily the tropical and sub-tropical zones), a little attitude adjustment may be in order, especially in light of those amazing 30 kinds of plants that are keeping 6.7 billion people fuelled.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who wonders about First Nations people eating camas bulbs and salal berries.