Earth's Unsung Bounty


Americans have expanded their taste buds in recent years. Today, even ball parks serve a range of ethnic foods. But the new variety in the American diet only scratches the surface of Earth's nutritional bounty.

Scientists estimate that through the centuries human beings have depended on 4,000 different edible species of plants. Now, however, with more people than ever populating the planet -- and 700 million of them chronically undernourished -- only about 150 species are widely cultivated. In the long run we may pay a heavy price for an excessive dependence on staples like wheat, corn and rice.

While yields of these familiar crops are being pushed to their limits by modern methods of farming, many other food sources languish unappreciated and often unprotected. As a result, many species are disappearing, robbing the world of valuable genetic material and potential tools for sustaining human life. The same is true for many types of animal breeds.

Now the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, has undertaken an effort to help preserve Mother Nature's genetic cupboard. It is sponsoring efforts to find and protect as many of these overlooked species as possible, and to help improve their nutritional and agricultural value so that more farmers will cultivate them.

Can you imagine a world without potatoes to bake, mash, boil or fry? Six centuries ago, only South American Indians used this plant as a food source, but the Spanish conquest of the Incas quickly changed that. Now, the Inca civilization is but a dim historic memory, but potatoes are ubiquitous -- at least the five main species of cultivated potatoes. That could easily happen to some of the other 100 or so species of wild potatoes, some of which have more nutritional value or can withstand tougher climates than the potatoes we know.

It could also happen to arracacha, a South American root that is used by people in the Andes mountains as a substitute for potatoes -- and that costs only half as much to plant and harvest. Or to the maram bean, native to the Kalahari region of southern Africa. This bean has flavorful seeds with more protein than peanuts and more than twice the oil of soybeans.

The FAO projects that population growth will demand a huge increase in food production over the next few decades simply to prevent hunger from spreading. Maram beans or camu-camu fruit (30 times the vitamin C of an orange) may sound exotic now. But who knows -- 20 years from today, we may be buying them at Camden Yards.

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