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Retailers do more than increase sales and please palates by selling ancient grains.

They also help the environment.

By providing consumers alternatives to common grains such as wheat, retailers indirectly encourage biological diversity. Biodiversity has become a buzzword in environmental and organic farming circles as population growth, industrial agriculture and pollution speed the extinction of living things, taking with them the biologically diverse geodetic material that makes up the building blocks of life itself.

"No one knows how many plant species are disappearing each day, but for every plant that vanishes, so will the 20 to 40 animal species which rely on it," warns Gabriel Howearth, a master gardener whose extensive collection of rare and heirloom seeds helped found Seeds of Change, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company that aims to strengthen the food supply through farming and gardening.

Modern agriculture encourages mono-cropping and genetic uniformity because it boosts annual crop yields and makes it easier to fight certain diseases and pests. But the case for biodiversity is much stager, says geneticist Alan Kapuler, Ph.D., president of Peace Seeds in Corvallis, Ore., and former cancer researcher. He is co-founder of Seeds of Change and founder of the University of Connecticut's microbiology department.

"The staff of life is biodiversity. The reservoir of potentiality and change depends upon it," he says.

Botanists estimate there are 80,000 edible plant species. Today's farmers focus on about 150. And just 20 species provide 90 percent of our food.

"Although more than 20,000 edible plants are known, and perhaps 3,000 have been used by mankind throughout history, a mere handful of crops now dominate the world's food supply " says Noel D. Vietmeyer, a world resource expert at the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. "This is a dangerously small larder from which to feed a whole planet.

Such uniformity has raised crop production, but it also poses risks, especially when disease strikes, Vietmeyer notes. Ireland's potato blight and subsequent famine in the mid-1800s is one example. So is the near destruction of the U.S. corn crop by blight in the 1970s.

There are other drawbacks. Some genetically crossed, or hybridized, seeds don't breed true (especially open pollinated plants such as corn), forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year from seed companies, says Bob Quinn, organic farmer, biochemist and president of Montana Flour & Grains in Big Sandy, Mont. Many modern grains also need more water and chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides than ancient grains, he says.

For example, Quinn grows the ancient grain kamut It does not yield as well as wheat, but he says it is drought resistant and performs well without chemical inputs, making it ideal for organic farming.

Kapuler, like many others in organic agriculture, believes the cultivation of a genetically diverse range of plants--including ancient grains--is critical to the planet's future.

Once you lose life, you don't get it back," he says. "It is the greatest gift."

Copyright 1991

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