Have you ever taken delight in a field of wildflowers buzzing with bees and bustling with butterflies? Or enjoyed the bright, citrusy taste of a Green Zebra tomato alongside the mellow sweetness of a Rose de Berne? If so, you’ve experienced a few of the many benefits of biodiversity.
Biodiversity is short for “biological diversity,” and refers to all the plants, animals, and microorganisms that live on our earth. The scientist and author E. O. Wilson says that “biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw.”
Scientists have identified about 1.7 million species, but estimate that there are somewhere between 3 and 30 million. However, as we learn more about microbes, especially those that live in rich soil, some researchers say there may well be over 100 million species!
Important as big numbers like these are, they often have an eye-glazing effect. A more eye-opening way to illustrate biodiversity is visually — in real-life and via film. If you’ve been to a farmers market recently, you’ve most likely seen far more biodiversity than in the grocery store, with dozens of varieties of everything from apples to garlic to tomatoes.
Biodiversity in the Field
While the diversity of sizes, colors, and tastes at a farmers market is compelling, it is in the field where biodiversity is even more important. My brother Henry’s farm hosts over 650 varieties of vegetables, and his fields are bordered by a stream and surrounded by an oak-hickory forest alive with mammals, amphibians, birds, insects, and untold microorganisms.
This is the setting of A Season of Change on Henry’s Farm, a documentary-in-progress. One September afternoon, Ines Sommer filmed Henry and and his farmhands harvesting 45 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 14 varieties of hybrids, 13 varieties of cherry tomatoes, and 11 varieties of paste tomatoes— with names as lovely as the tomatoes themselves: from Orange-Fleshed Purple Smudge, to Aunt Ruby’s German Green, to all the Zebras —Green, Red, and Black. That’s 83 varieties, and we haven’t even left the tomato category!
Why would anyone grow so many varieties? First, Henry chooses each variety for its taste and ability to thrive in our central Illinois climate, not for the industrial values of uniform size, shape, color, transportability, and shelf-life. He also plants many varieties because you never know which will do well in a particular year. But overall, Henry says, “My goal as a farmer is to have my field look as much like nature as possible. And nature is very diverse. Nature doesn’t want to grow 100 acres of soybeans.”
There are many reasons why biodiversity is important to people and ecosystems, and especially to farmers like Henry. Here are just a few of them.
Genetic diversity helps species adjust to changes in their environment.
Biodiverse farms allow farmers to take advantage of natural pest control, and use fewer or no pesticides.
Biodiverse farms and other places provide ecological services that make life livable on Earth–everything from cleaning water and absorbing chemicals, which wetlands do, to providing oxygen for us to breathe.
Biodiversity provides us with the foods we, and other species, need and love.
Biodiversity on the Tongue
Although I grew up on home-grown potatoes, it wasn’t until Henry started raising heirloom varieties that I realized they have as many subtle flavors as wine. The Carola is creamy and rich, the Butte is light and silky, the Elba is fluffy and aromatic, the Peruvian Purple is dense and earthy with a hint of mineral salts. Those differences are accentuated by the rich soil of Henry’s Farm, since soil is as important to potatoes as yeast is to bread. In fact, the aroma of perfectly cooked, steaming hot, freshly dug potatoes reminds me of freshly baked bread—both crying out for nothing more than a dab of butter and a pinch of sea salt.
Henry grows more than 20 varieties of potatoes, including productive old favorites like Kennebec and Irish Cobbler, and heirloom varieties such as Ozette, LaRatte, All Blue, Huckleberry, German Butterball, Caribe, Rose Gold, Yellow Finn, Elba, Carola, and Yukon Gold. With all this variety, Henry’s customers get many different colors, textures, and tastes to choose from, and Henry gets an insurance policy.
Biodiversity: The Ultimate Insurance Policy
Every living thing is slightly different in its resistance to various diseases, and in its ability to thrive in different conditions. One of the great benefits of biodiversity in that you don’t have “all your eggs in one basket.” Financial managers call this principle “diversifying your portfolio,” and the rationale is the same. It would be a seriously deficient financial advisor who put all your savings into one stock. Similarly, if you plant only one crop, you are very much at risk of a total crop failure. But if you plant many varieties, no matter what the weather, or the pest pressure, you’ll always have something to harvest.
“It seems like every year some varieties do great and other not so great,” Henry says, “and I haven’t really been able to correlate it with anything. Just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to understand the why and the wherefore of how nature works. I know enough to predict that the vagaries of temperature, rainfall, disease pressure, and so on will favor different varieties from year to year, but I don’t know enough to predict which varieties will respond to which conditions. And that’s fine. I don’t need to know.”
In a wet year, tomato plants tend to get fungal and bacterial diseases. But because of Henry’s tomato biodiversity, even if 20 varieties succumb, Henry still has 60-some that thrive. Even last year, with its far-from-ideal tomato weather, we still had plenty of tomatoes to sell, and we still we have bags and bags of tomatoes in the freezer. That we have plenty of tomatoes even in a “bad” year is a testament to the benefits of biodiversity, and to the productivity possible in Aldo Leopold’s “community of interdependent parts”—plants, animals, insects, microorganisms, sun, rain, and people too.
As we continue to learn more about the interdependence of life, biodiversity gains importance. But we also value it simply because there are few things as beautiful, inspiring, and often delicious, as the diversity of life on Earth.