In ‘The Cultivar Series,’ Uli Westphal Gets to the Root of Crop Diversity and Agricultural Modification
Earlier this year, Russia’s war in Ukraine obstructed the global food supply in a way that exposed just how precarious the entire system is. The conflict confined 25 million tons of corn and wheat to the country, making such a crucial stock inaccessible and compounding the effects of an already urgent crisis.
Combined with disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and the continual issues of the climate crisis, the war helped propel global food insecurity to levels unseen in decades. It’s estimated that approximately 800 million people around the world don’t have enough to eat due to skyrocketing prices caused by increased demand for a reduced supply. These problems are predicted to decimate local economies and prompt widespread unrest in the coming years.
Part of combating such an emergency involves understanding the core of modern production and how growing practices have evolved over time. Back in 2010, artist Uli Westphal took an interest in the ways farming and cultivation were affecting the availability of certain plants after a visit to VERN e.V. The German nonprofit cares for thousands of specimens, makes obscure or rare varieties available to the public, and is also “a regional network of gardeners, farmers, and local garden sites.” “They have a large garden plot in a tiny village two hours north of Berlin, where they grow a kaleidoscope of rare and forgotten crop varieties,” he shares. “I walked into a greenhouse full of tomato plants bearing fruits that I had never seen in my life.”
This encounter prompted what’s become a years-long project of documenting the planet’s incredible agricultural diversity. Encompassing both the wild and the domestic, Westphal’s “ongoing and endless” Cultivar Series illuminates a vast array of specimens through striking flat-lay photos. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other produce arranged by color capture the breadth of the world’s crops, comparing their shapes, sizes, and molecular makeup—higher levels of chlorophyll promote the verdant pigments of leafy greens, for example, while carotenoids are responsible for bright orange carrots.
From Amsterdam and Potsdam, Germany, to Mexico City and Tucson, the sources of Westphal’s subject matter are broad, with some fare coming fully grown from farmers and others as seeds to be cultivated. “Cucumis sativus I” features fifty cucumber varieties the photographer grew in a greenhouse once connected to his Berlin-based studio from seeds gifted by a Dutch organization, for example, while the pumpkins and peppers in two of his other works were a collaboration with Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise, Idaho.
Whether depicting potatoes or pears, the images offer a rare glimpse of species that often aren’t available in the grocery store or markets. “Since the industrialization of agriculture, our focus has shifted to only a few modern, high-yielding, robust, ‘good looking,’ uniform, and predictable varieties. This change has led to the displacement of traditional crop varieties,” Westphal writes, noting that when a plant isn’t actively cultivated, it often falls under threat of extinction, and such strains tend to be protected by conservation organizations like the seed banks he’s collaborated with in the past. “A majority of all varieties developed by humans have already become extinct during the last 50 years. With them, we not only lose genetic diversity but also a living cultural and culinary heritage.”
The photos also elicit questions about contemporary domestication practices that are of increasing concern as biodiversity dwindles. Westphal tells Colossal:
Synthetic biology is evolving at a rapid speed, out-pacing public awareness, debate, and regulation and is altering life in ways that are unprecedented. My main concerns about synthetic biology (and genetic engineering) are the havoc that the inevitable release of significantly altered organisms into ecosystems can cause and the increasing consolidation of corporate control over what we grow and eat.
Three photos from The Cultivar Series are on view as part of the group exhibition Food in New York through September 30, 2023, at the Museum of the City of New York, and Westphal is currently working to document the seeds of the world’s edible plants, of which he’s culled a shortlist of 3,000 species. Prints of his flat lays are available on his site, along with similar collections centered on fruits and other consumables, and you can follow his practice on Instagram. (via Present & Correct)
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