I rattle the supermarket trolley down the aisles of our local supermarket. Row after row of convenience food promises relief from the demands of the children's relentless young appetites. Cartoon characters and chocolate chips proliferate, but I am concerned. This food all seems a long way from anything I recognise growing in the fields near our farm.
It's not just the processing that worries me. Globally, just three crops make up more than half of our consumption of food derived from plants: rice, wheat and maize (corn). Breeding new varieties of these plants often increases yields and resistance to pests and disease, but can also makes our food system vulnerable to catastrophic events through lack of diversity.
On Friday, I had the chance to re-visit the wonderful Australian Grains Genebank. The facility is located in Horsham, just one hour's drive north of our farm. The Genebank is a repository for over 150 million seeds, stored in freezers to ensure viability for the next 50 years in order preserving our crops' genetic resources.
Seed orders are being dispatched at the moment. Staff in anoraks and thick gloves search out samples from the freezer, which holds over 180,000 different varieties. The Director of the Genebank, Dr. Sally Norton, kindly finds the time to show me the precious samples of corn, some of which bear little resemblance to our modern hybrids.
There is a global database of corn that tracks individual plants back to their origins, revealing an intriguing story. From village to village, individual strains are bred that provide a foundation for food and cultural practices indigenous to that population. International conventions enable the seeds to be harvested and exported, to be stored in facilities like the Grains Genebank to ensure they are not lost forever as urbanisation spreads and commercial agricultural practices become entrenched.
Sally has trawled the database on my behalf and so, beside me as I type are envelopes containing samples of this precious cargo.
In many cases more vulnerable than their modern counterparts to frost, dry summers and disease, these plants will need cosseting. Last year, though, they rewarded our care with displays of exquisite tassels, flamboyant flowers and delicate leaf structures. I hope I can do them justice this year. If we get a yield, I will send the best cobs away for study into their levels of different health-giving compounds and vitamins, and begin to think about ways I can contribute to diversity in our agricultural systems and, eventually, our own diets.