A Farmer’s Thoughts on Race

I have been growing at least some of my own food since I was a child. For some years my wife and I owned and operated a local organic farm, directly feeding up to 75 families from our labors.

In my half century of raising plants and animals I have learned a lot. One of the most important things I have learned is the value of diversity.

We face challenge all the time. In agriculture it comes in the form of changing weather, onslaught of pests (critters and diseases), fickle markets, bizarre government regulations, and on and on.

Diversity is the best response: a multitude of different crops, different growing schedules, crop rotations, multiple types of markets, responding thoughtfully, and keeping under the radar, generally.

So, from life experience, my inclination is to value diversity as a very good thing. It is diversity that increases the number of responses to challenge, and maximizes the chance that we will be able to respond in a positive way.

Our shorthand for this is “Diversity is not an option – it is essential.”

In my experience it is just as true of groups of people as it is for farms.

There is a lot of emotional energy involved in discussions of “race.” It tends to cloud thinking, obstruct communication, and generally lead to bad outcomes. I would like to suggest an idea that came to me as I was thinking about the concept of race as it applies to human beings.

In agriculture there are the terms “species”, “race” and “variety”. While it is somewhat more complicated than this, here is the difference: if two bisexual organisms can produce fertile offspring, they are in the same species. If they cannot, they are in different species.

Race is used when a number of similar but distinct plants are found mixed together which appear to be members of the same species, but with a lot of variation. Until further study determines more details, they are called a “race” or a “land race” as a convenient away to say, “Here are a bunch of examples of what appear to be members of a single species that we don’t know much about.”

Variety is the term we use to describe the array of natural variation in appearance or other characteristics we find in any genetically diverse group of individual members of one species. For example, we grow many different tomato varieties, each selected for a particular set of characteristics of size, shape, flavor, meatiness, keeping ability, etc.

The way we commonly express this natural, desirable variation is the “binomial nomenclature” we use to describe plants and animals: Genus, species, and then, if applicable, variety. For example, a Ropreco tomato would be Lycopersicon esculentum var. Ropreco. Race does not appear in the mix, because race is not a defining factor.

I suggest that the various subsets of Homo sapiens that we currently refer to as “races” be referred to as varieties. Perhaps that would allow us to dial down the emotion and begin to recognize and celebrate the diversity in our species that makes us so resilient, so creative, and so fundamentally better than our societies would seem to demonstrate.

What do you think?

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