Fruits We'll Never Taste

Preserving diversity—in the natural world and human culture—lets us delight in an abundant world

| March/April 2002

IMAGINE cupping an Ansault pear in your palm, polishing its golden-green belly on your shirtsleeve. Imagine raising it to your lips and biting, the crisp snap as a wafer of buttery flesh falls on your tongue. Imagine the juice shooting out—you bend at the waist and scoot your feet back to prevent the drips from falling on your sneakers. . . .

Imagine it all you can, for it’s all you can do. You’ll never eat an Ansault pear. They are extinct, and have been for decades: dead as dodo birds. How could this happen to a pear variety that agriculturist U.P. Hetrick described in l921 as "better than any other pear," with a "rich sweet flavor, and distinct but delicate perfume"? The dismaying truth is that you can apply that question to thousands of fruits and vegetables. In the past few decades we’ve lost varieties of almost every crop species. Where American farmers once chose from among 7,000 apple varieties, they now choose from 1,000. Beans, beets, millet, peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, and rice all have suffered a large reduction in varieties. In fact, over 90 percent of crops that were grown in 1900 are gone.

Of course, a bumper sticker reading "Save the White Wonder Cucumbers" sounds a bit silly. And as long as we haven’t lost pears altogether, the loss of a particular variety, no matter how good, isn’t cataclysmic. We have a lot of other worries. How many years of clean air do we have left? How much clean water? But when we lose a variety of pear or cucumber, even one we’re not likely to taste, or, in an analogous situation, when we lose a language, even one we’re not likely to hear, we’re losing a lot more than we think. We’re losing sources of information that could help us solve our big questions, like who we are and what we’re doing here on earth.

FARMERS have always manipulated crops to meet human desires, but up until the past several decades these manipulations increased crop diversity instead of limiting it. Long before pioneer geneticist Gregor Mendel first began decoding the laws of heredity in the 19th century, our ancestors were selectively breeding both animals and plants. Early Peruvian farmers, for example, noticed color mutations among their cotton fibers and bred the plants to produce those colors for their vibrant cloth. When early farmers moved, they took their seed with them, and varied growing conditions increased crop diversity as the varieties reacted to new environments or evolved new defenses for pests or blights. Humans farmed this way for about 10,000 years. Even at the turn of the 20th century, small farms tended to grow many crops and sometimes several varieties of a particular crop. If a blight attacked one corn variety on a farm, it was likely that the farmer, or another farmer nearby, would be growing a resistant They are dependent upon intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They reach the market only if they can withstand mechanical harvesting and the rigors of shipping to distant markets, and these packing considerations shape our diet in startling ways, as anyone who’s followed the quest for the square tomato can tell you. Some biotech companies have taken the human manipulation of crops to a profitable—if seemingly unnatural—extreme. In 1997, biotech giant Monsanto, which began as a chemical company, filed for a patent for a seed whose survival depends not on being exposed to a rise in temperature or an inch of rainfall, but on being exposed to a certain chemical.

And now, according to the International Food Information Council, we have scientists crossing two potato varieties to make a hybrid that will be higher in starch and need less oil for frying, resulting in lower-fat fries. But genetic engineers no longer stop with crossing two varieties of the same plant species. They’re as likely to consider adding genes from another species or even animals if the changes seem likely to increase a crop’s profitability. Recently, genetic engineers modified strawberries with a gene from a fish, the flounder, to make the fruit resistant to cold. In this way, millions of years of nature’s "decisions"—which crops should fail, which thrive, which qualities are passed on through evolution—are reversed almost overnight. The Union of Concerned Scientists is, well, concerned. Poet W.S. Merwin likens our position in history now to the start of the nuclear age: We are rushing to embrace technology that will change us in unalterable, unforeseeable ways.

A problem with miracles is that sometimes they don’t last. A miracle-yield hybrid’s defenses against disease or natural enemies are often based on a single gene, an easy thing for continuously evolving pests to overcome.

6/8/2012 1:37:15 PM

Gregory, get some twigs of it grafted, and get the dna or some its genetic material analyzed by an agricultural university. Btw, I do grafting, but I'm in San Diego. Also, to the author, fire making is our most distinctive difference from other Earthlings. Other Earthlings have language, but no other makes fire, cooks food,...

Gregory Gardener
3/26/2008 12:00:00 AM

Could somebody help me out here? Behind my 100 year-old house in Providence, RI, is a pear tree about the same age. Major chunks of the trunk are gone and some branches appear to be rotted but it still manages to flower and even produce a few fruits--all while being situated in dense shade. Well, the next big storm will most certainly take it out. I'm therefore ready to bring it down in a more orderly fashion. But what if it's an extinct variety? Can anyone offer advice to how I might find out?