Crop diversity is the variance in genetic and phenotypic characteristics of plants used in agriculture. Crops may vary in seed size, branching pattern, in height, flower color, fruiting time, or flavor. They may also vary in less obvious characteristics such as their response to heat, cold or drought, or their ability to resist specific diseases and pests. It is possible to discover variation in almost every conceivable trait, including nutritional qualities, preparation and cooking techniques, and of course how a crop tastes. And if a trait cannot be found in the crop itself, it can often be found in a wild relative of the crop; a plant that has similar species that have not been farmed or used in agriculture, but exist in the wild.
Diversity in a crop can also result from different growing conditions: a crop growing in nutrient poor soil is likely to be shorter than a crop growing in more fertile soil. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, diversity of a harvested plant can be the result of genetic differences: a crop may have genes conferring early maturity or disease resistance. It is these heritable traits that are of special interest as they are passed on from generation to generation and collectively determine a crop’s overall characteristics and future potential. Through combining genes for different traits in desired combinations, plant breeders are able to develop new crop varieties to meet specific conditions. A new variety might, for example, be higher yielding, more disease resistant and have a longer shelf life than the varieties from which it was bred. The practical use of crop diversity goes back to early agricultural methods of crop rotation and fallow fields, planting and harvesting one type of crop on a plot of land one year, and using a different crop the next based on differences in a plant's nutrient needs. Both farmers and scientists must continually draw on the irreplaceable resource of genetic diversity to ensure productive harvests, as genetic variability provides farmers resilience to pests and diseases and allows scientists access to a more diverse genetic bank. Diversification of harvests and maintaining wild biodiversity in crop relatives influence many aspects of human and global interaction, being important for environmental and species sustainability.
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