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Saving Vegetables Under Threat Of Extinction

Historically man is estimated to have consumed more than 7,000 species of basic foods... delicious!
by Staff Writers
by Pamela Taylor
Geneva (AFP) Mar 21, 2006 "White carrots and parsnips," exclaimed Marie Ghargueraud, holding up a bunch of straggly, unappealing tubers and dusting off clumps of earth. "I haven't seen these in years. I'm going to prepare a pot-au-feu for my grandchildren the way my mother did."

Ghargueraud, 74, shopping for ingredients for her beef stew at the Marche St. Jean, Geneva's first completely organic market, is among a growing number of consumers who prefer organically grown produce.

But few are aware that buying organic food products also helps preserve disappearing species.

Historically man is estimated to have consumed more than 7,000 species of basic foods, according to Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, a scientist with the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"Today a little more than 150 species are under general cultivation."

What's at stake is more important than simply giving consumers greater choice, according to Esquinas-Alcazar.

The great potato famine of the 19th century happened because Europe's potatoes came from a common species that was not resistant to a certain disease.

And the US corn crop was only saved from destruction in the 1970s thanks to cross breeding with rare strains from Africa and Latin America.

Esquinas-Alcazar and other bio-scientists hope the UN Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, recently adopted by more than 80 countries, will strengthen efforts to save endangered species and encourage more organic farming.

Denise Gauthier of ProSpecieRara at Geneva's Botanical Gardens has been combining scientific theory and small farming practices since 1982.

"Our goal is two-fold: for scientific research to rediscover and preserve ancient species and to provide seedlings to small bio farmers and individuals interested in growing them," she said.

Most of the rare species under cultivation by ProSpecieRara are known by their Latin botanical names. But others might be familiar to older generations: Burdock (similar to artichoke), Salsifis (Oyster Plant), Carambole (wild leek), Dwarf beans and Shepherd's Nettle to name only a few.

"We try to raise different varieties, like violet potatoes and red-and-white-ringed Chiogga beets," said Claude Mudry, 53, of the 400-member Jardin de Cocagne farmer's cooperative.

"It takes a lot of effort only to discover that sometimes they turn out not very pretty and maybe not really very tasty. But we continue out of curiosity and passion."

Denise Adler, 45, a small plot gardener from nearby Bellevue who sells her produce at the Marche St. Jean, takes particular pleasure in cultivating endangered varieties.

In winter it's apples with names like Idared, Topaz and Gold Rush, none of them as large or brightly waxed as supermarket varieties.

At the next stand over, Xavier Pichon, 32, also with the Jardin de Cocagne cooperative, is proud of his selections of wild parsnip, salsify, rutabaga and white carrots. "Growing rare species is a passion," he said.

A fruit grower in the village of Waldkirch, near the Swiss-Austrian border, Peter Zahner, is renowned for his work with what are called "hautes tiges".

Once the standard species, the tall fruit trees have given way to their shorter, pruned cousins and all but disappeared.

Zahner's orchards feature 300 different varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries, including rare fruits like the "Schweizerhose" pear and the "Zahnedel", an apple bearing his name.

An unexpected side benefit of his efforts to save rare species, Zahner said, is that birds not seen in a long time, like the pied flycatcher and the ash-head thrush, have begun reappearing in the tall fruit trees.

"All the international agreements in the world will remain pieces of paper without consumers demanding more diversity in their foodstuffs," warned Esquinas-Alcazar calling Europe's organic movement an example of consumer demand pushing big business to respond.

He also believes that partly thanks to organic farming, "the past fifteen years has seen an increase in the number of plant foods once again available to mankind".

As for the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops, Esquinas-Alcazar said such crops cannot replace traditional farming methods when it comes to delivering disease resistant crops.

Though a constant struggle, the smallholder's drive to uphold diversity can draw some hope from a pledge by world governments to try to slow down the loss of biodiversity by 2010.

This goal -- only four years away -- will be the focus from March 20 to 31 at a meeting by governments, scientists and conservation groups under the UN Convention of Biological Diversity in Curitiba, Brazil.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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