Eating Native?

veggiesforgrilling2smI’m currently teaching a biodiversity class at my daughter’s school, so I’ve been thinking a lot about biodiversity in New Zealand. Out here on this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, living things have had 65 million years to evolve in isolation. Until humans arrived about 700 years ago, most living things here were endemic—found nowhere else on earth. Three and a half metre tall birds and the giant eagles that preyed on them, flightless parrots, frogs that hatch from the egg fully formed, tuatara that died out everywhere else on earth millions of years ago, crickets the size of mice…

Humans changed things dramatically and rapidly. We brought thousands of other organisms with us, some on purpose, many by accident. Many of those organisms flourished here, at the expense of native organisms. Today, there are few New Zealand ecosystems untouched by the invasion of humans and other non-natives. Some of the most successful invaders have been plants—today there are more introduced plants here than there are natives, and more arrive all the time, in spite of efforts to prevent them.

Many of those invading plants were brought to New Zealand on purpose to provide food, shelter, or medicine. In fact, I can’t think of a single native plant currently cultivated for food, except one seaweed. There are certainly a few edible native plants, but they are few, and they are more of a survival food than something you’d want to eat every day.

No surprise. The crops we eat today have been cultivated for thousands of years—selected by countless generations of farmers to be bigger, tastier, and easier to grow. With only 700 years of history in New Zealand, there’s hardly been time to develop native crops.

The human migrants to New Zealand brought their crops with them instead. Familiar corn and carrots, potatoes and peas. But it’s not just in New Zealand that people mostly eat food native to other regions. People have been carrying their food with them for as long as we’ve travelled, until it’s sometimes hard to know where a food originally came from—classic Italian tomato sauce is made from a plant native to the Americas, the American “wheat belt” has its origins thousands of years ago in Turkey, and cassava domesticated in Brazil is now a staple food throughout tropical areas worldwide. Few people anywhere in the world eat native.

While I would love to be able to magically bring back the moa, Haast eagles, huia, and host of other incredible New Zealand endemic organisms that humans have wiped out here, I will admit I’m terribly fond of my non-native tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, eggplants, etc. I am thankful those non-natives are here, and I need not subsist on seaweed and ferns. Does it feel somewhat disingenuous to passionately support the conservation of our native biodiversity while I plant my non-native vegetable garden? Yes, but I’m only human, after all, doing what humans have done for 10,000 years.