Biodiversity: the Key to Abundance

From Chapter 21 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas

Biodiversity and human health are bound together. In the natural living garden, biodiversity is the perfect model for health, not only for the soil, but also for all life.

Biological diversity is under threat from the growth of our human population, unsustainable resource consumption and the drive for sustained economic growth. None of these consider the value of biodiversity. We see habitat loss at an alarming rate, genetically engineered pollutants drifting and infecting indigenous species and pollution contributing to global climate change. Our lives have become so mono-cultured and sterile that our choices dwindle every day.

Intensified agricultural systems reduce biodiversity. Only a few insect species might make up 95 percent of the dominant species on a mono-cultured farm. The loss of our natural ecosystem is largely a result of agricultural transformation. Spraying to kill insects throws the entire ecosystem off balance. When farmers focus exclusively on growing one species of plant year after year, that also upsets the natural balance. We can help prevent losing all of the natural biodiversity starting right in our backyards. Local action equals global benefit.

The Supermarket and our Backyard
About 80,000 plants are edible. The next time you are in a supermarket, count how many fruits and vegetables you see for sale. At most, you might find 100 to 200 choices. If you include the dried spice rack, you might find up to 300. This lack of choice alarms me. We are being denied choices every day by giant corporations that limit what we can eat for the sake of their profits. If an edible plant does not look pretty, travel well or have a long shelf life, it does not make it to market for us to choose.

I am not opposed to business making a profit. I own a large company that promotes the organic lifestyle and depends on profits to sustain itself. However, I think we need an ethical element in how consumers choose companies to support. I want all businesses to profit from being creative and innovative, which I strive for in my own business.

Economic manipulation has diluted the variety of tastes in life. Perhaps as consumers we need to ask for more than what we see in front of us. Maybe we assume 300 plant varieties are enough. I want choices for my family and myself. I have invented more than 150 products over the years. My customers have choices as to what works best for them. I want you to have the same freedom of choice our ancestors had before monoculture hit us like a tsunami and narrowed our choices of food.

Life, even garden life, can be exciting and unpredictable. We don't live in a vacuum; neither should your plants. Why kill all life in the garden for the sake of a perfect leaf or flower? Don't feed a living soil with a dead synthetic fertilizer. It adds no value to the soil food web. It's boring and in the long term depletes the soil and nutritional value of the foods we eat.

Plants, like animals and humans, seek variety. Plants thrive in wind and rain, through days and nights of different length, and in hot and cold temperatures at different times of the year. All life should be diverse and plentiful. Abundance comes through natural evolution without tampering by human hands.

Modern Technology Can Have Adverse Effects
Diversity is a major factor in preventing pest and disease build-up because of the way in which organisms interact. When any one species becomes dominant in an area, predators move in to take advantage of the bounty. Eventually, predators reduce the dominant species and restore the balance of nature.

In the past, farmers relied on natural methods of agriculture. Chemicals were not available to them. Now it is possible to grow crops as monocultures. Pesticides have given us a way to control competition. This unnatural form of agriculture has created a range of unintended problems. We can restore the natural balance by planting a diverse range of plant species in our gardens. Plant diversity naturally reduces pests and diseases.

A bio-diverse garden has global impact. You start by building the life in soil that teems with micro- and macro-organisms. Then you plant as many heirloom varieties of plants as possible. After harvest, give those seeds away to as many foodies and gardeners as possible on condition that they do the same. The next year grow a completely different set of heirloom plants. Do it all over again until you can savor and taste every possible kind of plant you can get. Now, it might take a lifetime before you can grow and taste all 80,000 edible plants. Wouldn't it be great to try? This is how biodiversity can make a comeback. It's also putting soil to work like a highly trained athlete. With the associated health benefits you and the environment receive from promoting biodiversity, you might even save the plant that contains an agent that could cure cancer.

Diverse is Good, Variety is Better, Freedom of Choice is Best
Heirloom plants are varieties handed down through decades or even centuries from one farmer or gardener to another. For roughly 12,000 years, human civilization has been based on agriculture and horticulture. During this time, thousands of genetically unique strains of fruits and vegetables have been selected and bred by farmers and gardeners. They represent a genetic heritage that is disappearing from commercial horticulture. Large-scale factory production demands that plants conform to strict guidelines to fit into mechanized systems. The conventional farmer today grows crops with the greatest profit potential. A few giant companies control the majority of our food except for a handful of organic growers who choose rich biodiversity over cheap standardization. The backyard gardener can help create an environment that will benefit all of us.

Heirloom varieties celebrate genetic diversity. Their greatest strength is that individual plants within each crop mature a bit earlier or are more resistant to pests and diseases or contain greater nutrient density. Such characteristics are a great advantage in the organic garden, where the produce does not have to fit into a narrow commercial model.

Fortunately, many gardeners recognize the value of maintaining genetic diversity for future generations. Around the world, various non-profit organizations store seeds or enable gardeners and farmers to swap seed and vegetative material of heirloom plant varieties. Look into a seed bank to obtain heirloom varieties. Grow them and step back into time with your taste buds. Enjoy the full bloom that biodiversity offers.

The Vital Roles of Herbs and Flowers in the Garden
Introducing a wide range of herbs and flowers into your organic garden has many benefits. They help attract an increased range of birds, insects, lizards and other animals. Insects and birds act as pollinators for your fruit and vegetables, giving you increased yields. Many of these creatures also help control pests. Inevitably, there are also some negative consequences, such as birds feeding on fruit, but the diversity you create will be an insurance policy. If one food crop is decimated, a host of others crops can replace it.

Herbs often have aromatic oils that give their foliage and flowers a characteristic perfume. Herbs such as pyrethrum and garlic create organic remedies for pest and disease problems. Such plants also release oils into the surrounding air and soil, thereby helping to repel pests from your garden naturally.

Diversification is a great insurance policy in everyone's garden. A great new drug discovery could come from a wild flower you received from a complete stranger from a seed bank or an heirloom tomato you traded at your last garden club meeting.

Milo Lou Shammas
Founder and Formulator

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