Fruit market stall

Sources of sustenance

How do humans and plants interact?

The human population depends on crop plants for food. Supermarket shelves are stocked with a wide selection of fruit, vegetable and grain varieties. But relative to the diversity present within nature, our options are limited. So what does this mean for those plants that have made it onto the menu?

Plant crops are very different to their wild ancestors. Over thousands of years we have domesticated them to produce hardier species that are easier to grow. The ancestor of the modern-day apple is a wild Asian species that is today considered vulnerable to extinction.

Agriculture creates an unnatural environment for food crops. One problem with the systems of intensive agriculture that keep the growing human population fed is that they rely on monoculture – the cultivation of a single crop over very large areas. Monoculture is risky because it leaves plant populations susceptible to pests and diseases that can wipe out entire crops.

In the most extreme cases we face the possibility of losing important food crops entirely. Of over 1,000 banana varieties, for example, only one, the Cavendish banana, accounts for 99 per cent of exports globally, and it is currently under threat from a deadly fungus known as Panama disease. If we want to save our supermarket bananas, we may have to consider genetic modification to provide them with disease-resistant genes. Or start eating other types of bananas.

Lead image:

Malcolm Chivers

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Populations’ in June 2014.

Ecology and environment, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development