The Multicultural Diversitywash (part 3/4)

Koanga Gardens, The Centre for Sustainable Living
Koanga Gardens, The Centre for Sustainable Living

While doing a 6-week WWOOFing stint at Koanga Gardens in New Zealand, a seed saving and "Centre for Sustainable Living" establishment, one of the many things that I learned about was of the existence of diversity within types of plants.

I spent a bit of time in the greenhouses seeding various vegetables in seed trays, in time transplanting little seedlings to small pots to give them and their roots more space to grow. Wanting to witness the fruits of my labour, I came back a few months later to their Harvest Festival and saw the Mother Seed Garden abound with all sorts of different fruits, vegetables and grains, including a variety of astonishingly different looking tomatoes.

What I was beginning to learn firsthand was that amongst various species – tomatoes, corn, apples, beans, chickens, cows, etc. – there is an immense amount of varietal diversity. Although their physical differences can initially be the most arresting, what is of greatest importance is their varying uses, and even more so, their varying growing qualities. (Yes, I do like the taste of food as well.)

The tomato provides a good case in point. Originating in South America, under favourable conditions this fleshy fruit is actually a perennial – cherry-type tomato trees/vines are known to grow as high as 50-feet tall in their native Peru. A versatile fruit, there are oblong-shaped meaty tomatoes that can be dried or used for making pastes and sauces, rounder ones used for slicing and dicing, cavernous ones ideal for stuffing, and even small cherry-types for snacking on.

Just scratching the surface of the diversity in tomatoes
Just scratching the surface of the diversity in tomatoes

As significant as these uses are to various cultures and their culinary tastes, it is the tomato's adaptive qualities that allow it to flourish in a variety of climates that differ from place to place. Naturally being a heat loving plant, centuries of breeding and adaptation have resulted in literally thousands of varieties acclimatized to a multitude of conditions. Depending on the cultivar (cultivated variety), some are suited for hot or cool, long or short growing seasons, dry or humid air, high or low altitudes, wet or dry climates, and more. In northern(ish) Canada I once grew a carrot-leafed cultivar named Silvery Fir that came from Siberia, had been adapted for short/cool seasons, and sure enough, of the dozen or so cultivars I grew it was the first to bear fruit and ripen.

Although we've been able to mask the reality of the matter for the time being with copious fossil fuels, locality thus plays a major role in the usefulness of our plant and animal diversity. This rich heritage we have is the result of the diligent work of small farmers and gardeners who out of necessity have been breeding, selecting, saving and exchanging seeds and livestock, passing them down from generation to generation – and now on to customers – for thousands of years.

But aware of it or not, Canadians, Australians and United Statesians are, albeit indirectly, complicit in the squandering of this heritage of genetic diversity due to the food we generally buy and the kinds of companies we inherently support – and directly by the simple fact that we generally aren't growing out and saving these seeds ourselves.

Although one can go on and on with this stuff, here's a list describing the paltry kind of diversity existent in United Statesian industrial foods, in most if not all cases similar to the situation in Canada and Australia:

  • Although places like the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa are preserving more than 6,000 varieties of tomatoes, 15 cultivars dominate both the processing and fresh market industries.
  • 73% of all lettuce grown is made up of one variety – Iceberg.
  • 50% of all commercially grown broccoli is made up of one variety – Marathon.
  • 90 percent of the milk supply comes from a single breed of cow – the Holstein.
  • 90% of eggs come from a single breed of chicken – the White Leghorn.
  • Virtually all chicken meat comes from a single breed – the White Cornish Cross.
  • More than 99% of turkeys are Broad Breasted Whites.
  • Two varieties of peas make up 95% of the crop acreage, four potatoes make up 72%, and one sweet potato makes up 69%.
  • Out of roughly 3,000 varieties of potatoes in existence, one variety, the Russett Burbank, dominates about half of the world's crop, for the most part thanks to McDonald's and their French fries.

And here's another list, this one describing the loss of worldwide genetic diversity amongst an array of our agricultural crops and livestock:

  • China went from 10,000 wheat varieties in 1949 to 1,000 in the 1970s.
  • Taiwan (then known as Formosa) went down from 1,197 to 390 rice varieties in the early-twentieth century when its Japanese occupiers purposely went about eliminating varieties deemed unpleasant to their palate, preferring soft and white rather than the Taiwanese hard and red.
  • Mexico has lost more than 80% of its maize varieties since 1930.
  • The US went from 7,098 apple varieties between 1804 and 1904 to 977 today, an 86.2% loss. During the same period pear varieties went from 2,683 down to 329, a loss of 87.7%.
  • Approximately 5,000 livestock and bird breeds have gone extinct over the past century, and of the 6,300 remaining, 1,350 are endangered or already extinct. As of 2007, a UN FAO study stated that one livestock breed had become extinct each month since the turn of the twenty-first century.
  • Comparing the total varieties available in 1903 and how many of those were available in 1983 in the United States’ National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL), 97.8% of asparagus varieties have been lost, 94.1% of beets, 92.7% of carrots, 96.1% of sweet corn, 94.4% of cucumbers, 87.2% of leeks, 93.9% of peas, 89.7% of sweet peppers ("capsicums" in Australia), 88.3% of squash, 80.6% of tomatoes, and 91% of watermelons – to name only a few.
  • According to Kent Whealy, co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, "57% of the nearly 5,000 non-hybrid vegetable varieties offered in 1984 catalogs had been dropped by 2004."
Diverse skin colours? Sure. But then is there adaptation to place, or aquiescence to corporations?
Diverse skin colours? Sure. But then is there adaptation to place, or aquiescence to corporations?

Nonetheless, heaping on the praise as many have done before him, then-Member of Parliament (and now leader of Canada's Liberal party) Justin Trudeau – son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who brought in Canada's official policy of multiculturalism – was quoted in a Toronto Star article as stating that Toronto is "the most multicultural city in the world." In addition, he told the crowd at a fundraiser that "We need to say 'I accept, I respect, I open my arms and my heart to you and I know that together, diversity is our greatest strength.'" But while none of this Kumbaya stuff addresses the industrial and colonial practices that are still creating waves of destitute people around the world – continually arriving and adding to Toronto's and Canada's so-called "multiculturalism" – these comments of Trudeau's are by no means uncommon sentiments.

For right now, if one were to stroll around various parts of Toronto, it's possible to come across posters parading the official motto of the city, "Diversity Our Strength." In light of the losses of diversity just mentioned I think it appropriate to ask, What kind of diversity is this referring to? In the motto's catch-all kind of demeanour it ambiguously appears to entail a broad understanding of diversity. But we should be well aware by now that this is certainly not the case. We know that it does not refer to genetic diversity of plants or livestock, species diversity, crop diversity, or any other kind of agricultural diversity, for the simple fact that there is no reason to believe that these are strengths of Toronto's and supposedly weaknesses of other cities which would be comparatively lacking.

Similarly, I think it's safe to say that nor does it relate to less regarded forms of diversity such as diversity of building materials or various approaches of adapting our homes to our places. What's the difference between (brick) houses in Toronto, Canada, and (brick) houses is Melbourne, Australia? Central heating? Double-glazed windows?

With all the different looking faces one sees throughout Toronto, I think it's safe to presume that Toronto's motto refers only to a very narrow definition of human diversity. Although human diversity could certainly be included within the definition of species diversity (or biodiversity), since this category inherently encompasses much more than just humans, I think we can safely say that the Toronto motto refers solely to a diversity of peoples, an anthropocentric view of diversity if there ever was one.

In short, it should be apparent then that what is conventionally called "multiculturalism" in places like Toronto and Melbourne would qualify – although not brought about intentionally – to be lumped together with the terms whitewash and greenwash and so be described as a diversitywash.

If, on the other hand, we are to take seriously the idea that diversity – or for that matter the very notion of multiculturalism – is a strength, then at the very least we ought to go about complicating our ways of thinking.

For I think it's fair to say that under our current adoption of "multiculturalism" and its celebration of "diversity," we are systematically abetting the destruction of several if not all forms of diversity, which ultimately means our cultures and ourselves. In other words, it appears that what we are largely living amongst is a monoculture in multiculturalist clothing.

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Kotare Village
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Feb 2015
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Loved your blog! Thanks for sharing!

Biodiversity is one of our shared values. Your writing brings to mind a quote we saw on facebook "Diversity is the art of thinking independently together!" and it also reminds one of the importance of re-wilding our selves.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Kotare Village: Thanks! I see on your website the involvement of Kay Baxter and Bob Corker (whom I had dinner with several times with while WWOOFing at Koanga Gardens) with Kotare Village, so yes, I imagine we do share that value of biodiversity. Kay provided my first in-depth introduction to seed saving and preservation, which was, and is, much appreciated.

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