The Grapevine

Is Zucchini Going Extinct? Here’s The Shocking Answer

Climate change is not just depleting natural resources and threatening the existence of various animal species, it might also slowly cause the extinction of certain 13 wild relatives of the gourd family of vegetables. 

A recent study published on New Phytologist Trust revealed zucchini, squash and pumpkin were among the vegetables with moderate risk of extinction. The team comprised of researchers belonging to various organizations studying agricultural conditions in the U.S., who narrowed down the vegetables facing extinction to 13 from 16 vegetables of the gourd family in total.

They examined the ex-situ and in-situ conservation statuses of these domesticated crop species in the U.S. and found them to be placed under “medium conservation priority”. The primary reasons being that the plants are not protected from threats to their existence and are under-represented in gene banks. 

“The worrying truth is that wild plants are in bad shape. Some estimates have at least 25% of them disappearing this century from a combination of habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species and more,” study lead author Colin Khoury explained.

Wild crops are usually harvested in gene banks if they have incredible genetic variation. But they also have to be able to survive climate changes and are generally evolved to suit extreme seasonal changes. Hence, more conservation is needed to ensure the crops thrive despite the worrying rate of extinction, slowly becoming a reality if significant action is not taken.  

“If these species become extinct, we will likely never know what value they could have had for productivity, human health and sustainability,” Khoury added. The other option of merely cultivating crops lacks genetic variety, which is a severe disadvantage, and are only preferred for their nutritional value. 

Studies in the past have analyzed the rate of plant extinction. Over the last 250 years, an average of 2.3 plant species have disappeared every year. Though extinction is normal, a species turnover instills equilibrium in the ecology. But this rate of extinction was much higher than the expected turnover, according to a study published in the journal of Nature Ecology and Evolution in July 2019. 

In fact, researchers from Pennsylvania State University conducted a study published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences in 2015, which looked into similar rates of extinction in plant species. They found a similar extinction pattern took place in the Americas about 13,500 to 14,500 years ago. 

It said that Cucurbita fruits (genome of the gourd family) was wiped out along with mammals who fed on them due to climate changes in that period of time. The domesticated versions of these fruits started about 10,000 years ago and that is what is left behind for us today.  

Over the years, scientists have started experimenting by editing genomes in order to maintain genetic varieties of wild crop species. Producers are hoping to get this past the regulators, who seldom agree to let gene editing go.  

But the truth is that without genetic variation, it is hard to ensure crop species continue their line. On the contrary, while genetic engineering of crops seems like a scientific advancement with its advantages, it may not be entirely good for health. 

zucchini Zucchini are a low-calorie veggie packed with many essential vitamins and nutrients. Photo courtesy of Pixabay