Here at Spoons Across America, we talk a lot about food and food news. What caught my attention recently was a conversation about agricultural biodiversity from journalist Simran Sethi. She writes and speaks widely about conserving biodiversity in global agriculture and how diversity in our food system supports food security for eaters across the world.

In short, the larger amount of different varieties of a plant or animal exist, the more strength that particular plant or animal species has in fending off diseases and other threats. Farming, in particular, spends a lot of time and effort keeping plants and animals disease-free, so that our food is safe and affordable. Sethi talks about conservation’s better-known methods of protecting biodiversity, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (that name makes it sound so intimidating!) and other seed banks around the world, where every plant in the world is safely documented and stored. While these methods are impressive, only a few scientists ever interact with them – there isn’t a way for the everyday foodie to make an impact in biodiversity conservation. What makes Simran Sethi’s point of view compelling is how she emphasizes the role of the average person in helping protect these species.

This is where the conversation takes a personal turn: Sethi argues that supporting local farmers who cultivate heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock (did you know there are heirloom varieties of pigs?) is just as vital as filling these big seed vaults in remote locations across the world.  Eating local and heirloom produce isn’t just for the good of the planet – these varieties are often taste better too. Choosing these varieties pushes back against the focus on monocultures, a term for heavily-specialized farming practices that only grow one crop like corn, soy, rice, wheat, and palm oil. In a statement given to The Guardian in November 2015, Sethi stated that “we can make a difference by seeking out diverse varieties of foods, by stepping out of the comfort zone of rice, wheat, soya and palm oil and demanding the food industry offers diversity not only in flavour but also in the types of ingredients used.” Her emphasis on the role of individual eaters not only makes the issue of biodiversity relevant to each of us, but it also places one of the solutions within our grasp.

So how can we make a difference?

Children got to taste lots of different foods at a Spoons Across America program at "Taste of the World: Kid's Kitchen" at the New York Times Travel Show this past winter.

Children could taste varieties of mushrooms and cabbage and spices at a Spoons Across America program at “Taste of the World: Kid’s Kitchen” at the New York Times Travel Show this past winter.

One of the things we teach in every class is how important our senses are in exploring and learning. Each of our programs incorporates this focus on our senses; children discuss how ingredients taste and smell and feel while they learn cooking skills and nutritional information. Using our senses personalizes the learning experience and helps us forge connections between ourselves and our foods. The children in our programs gain not only cooking and nutritional knowledge, but also an increased capacity for understanding and exploring their world. Our goal is that each child becomes a food explorer for life, using their senses to engage more deeply in their food choices.

With all this focus on using senses, it is easy to see why Spoons Across America would care so strongly about agricultural biodiversity. In the words of Sethi herself, “crop diversity is about deliciousness.” Heirloom varieties are rising in popularity because they taste better than other varieties available. The bright colors of purple carrots, rippled tomatoes, and watermelon radishes are stunning to be sure, but we are choosing foods not just because they look new or cool. We are choosing these foods because they taste better than the other varieties available. Fostering food exploration through our senses helps to strengthen the demand for heirloom foods, because we want to eat the sweeter tomato or the crunchier carrot, which in turn strengthens diversity efforts from local farmers and makers. Caring about taste, and taking the time to get to know our foods is the best way for us to promote diversity among what we’re eating!

Click here for an activity you can do with friends and family to taste some diversity at your local grocery store or farmer’s market!