Musings from the UN’s Greenmarket

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of strolling through the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Greenmarket at 47th and 2nd in Manhattan. I was actually rushing through, on my way to Private Dining Rooms 6-8 at the United Nations for the Nordic Council of Minister's luncheon on the preservation of the world's crop and livestock breeds.

The official title of the luncheon-part of the UN's annual two week meeting on issues of sustainable development, which focused this year on agriculture and rural development-was "The Crucial Role of Genetic Resources in Ensuring Food Security in a Changing Climate," and it featured fascinating slideshows of one African seed bank's holdings (it counts thousands of millet and sorghum breeds) and the Global Seed Vault, a collection of millions of seeds from around the world that is protected in a massive bank burrowed into mountainside permafrost above the Artic Circle.

So a quick survey of the farmers market was apropos. Because even in this relatively small market on a spring day before the heave of the growing season, the market displayed a fount of diversity. There seven participating farmers offered a couple varieties of asparagus, a rainbow of spring onions, lettuce mixes, and assorted Asian stir-fry greens, as well as garlic, potatoes and apples stored from last season. The fisher offered a couple different species of fish and shellfish from the waters around Long Island. There was cheese from New Jersey, and bread baked in Manhattan. (I don't know where the wheat was from.)

I had been invited to the luncheon as an advisor to the Nordic Council, alongside Ilse Köhler-Rollefson from the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development, and Alexander Müller, Assistant Director-General of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. And in my comments to the room, I emphasized that crop diversity is the foundation of a stable world food system. In the context of swine flu, climate change, and freshwater shortages, crop and livestock diversity offers resilience and the ability to cope. One variety of corn or breed of chickens may struggle in a warmer climate, but some will struggle less than others. The more foods in our collective diet, the less vulnerable we are to crop losses and hunger, and the less susceptible we are to being nutrient deficient.

But any serious effort to preserve this diversity must reach beyond seedbanks and even beyond farmers fields. In the age of food activism, the decisions we make at the farmers market or the supermarket flow back along the food chain. Farmers grow particular crops not just because they have high yields or resist pests, but because there is a demand for those crops.

This demand ends up inspiring all sorts of diversity, whether it's economic diversity because farmers have more options for making a living (selling zucchini begets selling zucchini pickles begets selling zucchini bread), or whether it's landscape diversity (more crop and livestock varieties mean more field rotations, more integration of livestock and crops, more mixing of perennial and annuals). How fitting that all this could be glimpsed at a farmers market named after the Swedish diplomat who was the second Secretary-General of the United Nations and who President John F. Kennedy called "the greatest statesman of our century."