Esther Meduna’s TEDxBasel talk is an ode to the purple carrots, striped beets, wild cabbages, rare beans and raspberry apples of the world. The botanist is dedicated to protecting plants that no longer dominate fields, orchards or supermarket shelves — and she works with a seed vault in Basel to do just that. At one time, practically every area in the world growing food had its own special edible plant species and varieties, each suited for that particular part of the globe, Meduna says in her talk. “In Switzerland, for example, there were distinct varieties [of fruits and vegetables] in almost every village — like the Küttiger carrot or the Uster apple,” she says.
Though many of these old crops are no longer seen in markets and in recipes, they have advocates in crop preservation groups like ProSpecieRara in Basel — where Meduna helps look over a seed library of about 1,800 fruit, 400 berry, and 1,600 vegetable plant varieties. The organization sometimes puts on exhibitions of traditional Swiss apple varieties, of which there are more than 600 kinds. “[At the exhibitions] older people say, ‘Oh, I remember this variety from my grandmother’s garden,’ and younger people, they’re just amazed and say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many different ones,’ and then they take out their phone and take a picture,” Meduna says.
Meduna is proud of the Swiss apples and calls area-specific plant varieties “our real cultural heritage, just like the Eiffel Tower or a painting by Van Gogh.” But she realizes not everyone thinks there should be 600 kinds of apples around town. “Do we really need all this diversity?” she imagines someone asking. “Are these plants more than just beautiful artifacts?”
Meduna says yes. She uses the Irish potato famine of the 19th century as an example: “The Irish were mostly cultivating a potato variety called the [Irish] Lumper. Potatoes of the same variety are clones and thus genetically identical. So when the new disease arrived [potato blight], it had a very easy game and it destroyed the crops in consecutive years.” The way to avoid tragedies like this is to diversify crops, Meduna says. In the Andes, it is common for farmers to grow a wide variety of potato crops — in order to protect against total die-out. “They always have a yield as the varieties differ in their reactions to pests or drier or wetter years.”
The tendency in contemporary, industrialized large-scale agriculture is the opposite, she says. Monoculture is the norm and the majority of seeds are coming from just a few places.
“In the last 150 years, we’ve lost 75% of all varieties ever selected by humans,” she says. “They have gone forever.”
Meduna hopes to halt that loss by encouraging people to grow traditional, heirloom seeds. “The more diversity we can safeguard now, the better the chance we will have suitable varieties available for the future,” she says.
To learn more, watch Meduna’s whole talk below: