Even as we stress the value of crop diversity in the struggle against pests and diseases, hunger and poverty, we must also acknowledge its contribution to social life, cuisine, culture and art.
The process of selecting certain plants and sowing their seeds, repeated every year for hundreds or thousands of years, has yielded not only an extraordinary number of varieties of every crop, but has also intensified humanity's relationship with the plants undergoing domestication. Consider the many crops and even crop varieties with distinctive traits that feature prominently in religion, mythology, and history, among them the apple, pomegranate, fig, grape, sesame, mustard and maize.
Traditionally, people have valued specific crop varieties for different purposes. In the Andes, the home of the potato, you will find a multitude of potatoes in all different shapes. The flesh of some will be white. Others will be yellow, red, blue, purple or black. Many of these will have a cultural, not just an ecological niche. And some potato varieties may even generate unexpected benefits - in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare speaks of certain aphrodisiac qualities.
This cultivation of different varieties for different purposes evident in all crops. People use sorghum as a grain, but they have also cultivated varieties suitable for making beer, molasses, brooms and baskets. There are different maize varieties for eating fresh off the cob or for feeding to animals, and there are others for popping, roasting, making flour, or brewing beer. Different maize varieties are also used for ornamental, medicinal and religious purposes. Maize with blue and red pigments helped certain varieties warm up quickly on cool mornings, allowing them to be planted earlier than other varieties.
Cultures, foods and even languages have co-evolved. Different cultures have come to rely on particular crops for their existence, and to appreciate particular tastes, colours and cooking qualities in their fruits, vegetables and grains. And people have conserved, celebrated, and further developed crop varieties that have suited their needs and their desires. Much of the diversity seen in crops therefore derives from and feeds the diversity of human cultures.