Try to count how many different kinds of fruits and vegetables you eat in the course of daily life. A dozen? More than fifty? If you think the number is high, you’re wrong: according to FAO, 90% of the produce consumed worldwide comes from only 100 species – out of the more than 7,000 that humans have been consuming since the beginning of their time on earth.
It rarely crosses our minds that, just like animals, even fruits and vegetables risk extinction. This is why various worldwide associations have begun dedicating “archaeological” arboreal and botanical initiatives in order to protect the gene pool of many plant species.
The point of reference for these agencies is what’s known as the Red List, which gathers together the rare, disappearing or extinct plants from a team of agronomists and is published by Flora and Fauna International (FFI). «Central Asia's forests are a vital storehouse for wild fruit and nut trees,» explains Antonia Eastwood, one of the scientists who has contributed to the Red List of Trees of Central Asia. «If we lose the genetic diversity these forests contain, the future security of these foods could be jeopardised, especially in the face of unknown changes in global climate.» Active in different areas of Central Asia, the experts at FFI are currently working even in remote places like Kyrgyzstan in order to save the disappearing Niedzwetzky apple, a strikingly red-coloured variety.
Even in Italy, which was once considered the world’s garden, varieties of produce are rapidly disappearing. Just a century ago, there were around 8,000 varieties of fruit, while today the number has dwindled to just under 2,000 – 1,500 of which are facing the risk of extinction. The Italian environmental association, FAI (Fondo ambiente Italiano) just recently presented a non-profit foundation for arboreal archaeology, which will launch on July 31st: «Both cultivated and spontaneous species are at risk,» explains Isabella Dalla Ragione, an agronomist and international researcher. «And to study lost species, we often use paintings from the great painters of the past like Caravaggio as a source. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, noble families would compete to see who could possess the strangest fruit, like the ‘Buddha-hand lime’.»
And no region is spared from the risk of disappearing fruit. «When I worked in Vietnam,» adds the researcher Dalla Ragione, «I worked on three local fruits: the mango, the anona fruit, and the kaki. Many of the indigenous varieties have been lost forever, due to the arrival of more productive species, like the Australian mango, for example.»
The impoverishment of global biodiversity has various causes: innovations in food production systems, excessive soil depletion, new parasites and diseases – and even market demands play a part. And this doesn’t just affect rare, local species: how would you feel, for example, if you were told that in ten years there won’t be any more bananas? Don’t begin stockpiling, but there is a risk: according to the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), there’s a black fungus, the Sigatoka, which is threatening banana plantations around the world. And in addition to the bananas in Ecuador, the same sad fate may be awaiting some varieties of mango and avocados – as well as a large part of the fruit cultivated around the world.
But what can each one of us do to help in a concrete way? Even something as simple as a home-grown lemon may be the first step in saving our planet’s disappearing fruit.