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The race to save endangered foods

Wild animals aren’t the only ones facing extinction. 

Video by Liz Scheltens with additional animations by Jason Lord
Liz Scheltens is a senior editorial producer for the Vox video team.

Here’s a stat for you: In 1903, seed catalogs offered American farmers a choice of 307 varieties of sweet corn. Today, just 12 of those varieties are still commercially available. A similar trend is visible in China, where more than 90 percent of native wheat varieties have been lost, and in Mexico, which has lost more than 80 percent of the varieties of maize, or corn, that were once grown there.

We’re letting foods we’ve eaten for thousands of years disappear from farmers’ fields, and from our plates. Saving them isn’t just a matter of cultural preservation. In the next 30 years, we’re going to need to learn how to feed more people on a hotter planet, and the more genetic varieties we lose, the harder it’ll be to adapt.

To learn more about the importance of genetic diversity in our food supply, check out the video above, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Additional reading

To learn more about the foods facing extinction in the US and around the world, check out the Ark of Taste, a project of Slow Food USA.

Journalist Mark Shapiro’s book, Seeds of Resistance, goes into much more detail about the risk that genetic homogeneity poses to our food supply. He also profiles some of the efforts, many led by indigenous communities, to preserve older seed varieties.

For more on seed relabeling, check out the Farmers Business Network’s 2018 Seed Relabeling Report.

The chart on declining global yields for corn, wheat, and rice comes from an article in the academic journal Disasters and Climate Change Economics from agricultural economists Mekbib G. Haile, Tesfamicheal Wossen, Kindie Tesfaye, and Joachim von Braun. Their prediction model takes into account both climate change and price volatility, which is why their estimates are higher than those of some other researchers.

Special thanks to Marie Haga of Global Crop Diversity Trust and Marleni Ramírez of Bioversity International for sharing their knowledge with me.

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