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National Geographic

Why National Geographic Has Portraits Of Cows, Chickens And Seeds

I don't know about you, but I like Fuji apples. Galas are great, too. I also enjoy trying the odd varieties at the farmers market. But why you would ever need 7,000 different apples is somewhat beyond me.

The seed of earleaf acacia Jim Richardson/National Geographic hide caption

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Jim Richardson/National Geographic

The seed of earleaf acacia

Jim Richardson/National Geographic

The July issue of National Geographic magazine takes a stab at explaining why that variety — or biodiversity — is important in plants and in livestock. Case in point would be Ireland's potato famine: By the 19th century, the population had become so dependent on one potato variety (the Lumper potato) that when a deadly fungus spread across the country, well ... you know the rest of the story.

The Phoenix chicken used in selective breeding descends from an ancient Japanese breed. Jim Richardson/National Geographic hide caption

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Jim Richardson/National Geographic

The Phoenix chicken used in selective breeding descends from an ancient Japanese breed.

Jim Richardson/National Geographic

The article makes a basic argument: There's a reason why red delicious apples are a grocery store favorite. They're probably either cheaper or hardier in the process of mass production — which makes it less economical to keep producing the other varieties. But if we stop producing the other ones, will they go extinct? And if a fungus attacks the red delicious? Would that be the end of apples?

It may seem like an extreme scenario, but there are people who devote their lives to those questions — like the people saving seeds at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway's remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, or the Kew Millennium Seed Bank in England. (Here's a TED talk about the latter.)

"It's a difficult concept to state simply, it's a difficult concept to grasp, and so it was therefore also a difficult subject to photograph," National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson says in a telephone interview. "If you were doing a story on the Grand Canyon, you kind of know where to go."

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Farmers in the tropics rely on this type of cattle, known as Humped or Brahman, because it can withstand severe heat. Jim Richardson/National Geographic hide caption

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Jim Richardson/National Geographic

Farmers in the tropics rely on this type of cattle, known as Humped or Brahman, because it can withstand severe heat.

Jim Richardson/National Geographic

This story took Richardson to a potato park in Peru, to wheat fields in Ethiopia, very nearly to the North Pole ... and to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas — about 70 miles from his house. According to Richardson, it has the biggest collection of rare beef cattle in the U.S.

The article contends that the same importance of biodiversity applies to livestock; certain hens, for example, are better at laying tons of eggs. So what happens to the breeds that aren't? It's food for thought.

There are many more photos over at National Geographic, including rare cattle, uncommon chickens and potatoes.