WASHINGTON — TIRED of turkey, potatoes, and squash? Take heart. The holiday menu of the future might feature stuffed Brahma chicken, mashed arracacha with gravy, and a side of tepary beans.
And if you're too full for pie, you might want just a smidgen of carambola fruit for dessert.
Old habits die hard, of course. But the world is full of little-known plant and animal species that someday might be as valuable as the once-unknown potato or soybean, according to a just-released United Nations report.
Even if they never grace tables, these underutilized foodstuffs provide a gene pool that could help established cousins adapt to change. A gene taken from the Ethiopian barley plant now protects California barley from yellow dwarf virus, for example.
Yet many obscure plants and animals are dying out unnoticed. Some 40,000 plants alone might be extinct by the middle of the next century, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization study.
``We could lose many valuable but unknown species, varieties, and breeds before their worth can be evaluated,'' says FAO director Edouard Soauma.
The biggest reason for the loss of agricultural diversity is the introduction of modern, high-yielding plant strains that displace traditional species. In India, farmers once grew 30,000 varieties of rice. Soon, says the FAO, only 10 species will cover three-quarters of the planted rice area.
United States apple growers once raised 7,000 different kinds of fruit. As anyone who has walked down a produce aisle in the last two decades knows, most of those varieties are now extinct.
The diversity of livestock is at even greater risk, since animal species cannot be preserved via the relative ease of seed-bank storage or regeneration from wild relatives. The Brahma chicken, for example, is an Asian variety used in the development of today's commercial poultry. Today it is almost extinct - despite some native advantages, such as ability to survive in a harsher environment than supermarket-ready breeds.
FEEDING an ever-growing world population will require use of all genetic resources, including underutilized species, says the FAO study. The advantages to be gained include plants and animals able to thrive under less-than-ideal conditions. A gene from a wild tomato-like plant found on the Galapagos Islands can make tomatoes salt-tolerant so they can be irrigated with one-third sea water, for instance.
The FAO aims to draw up an extensive global information system of native animal breeds and plants and to establish conservation banks of frozen semen and embryos. Among little-known plants and animals deemed potentially valuable:
* Chinese Taihu pigs. With thick wrinkled skin and long ears, the Taihu pig looks like a breed able to survive in poor conditions. It reaches sexual maturity quickly and is amazingly fertile - though in its native state its meat is somewhat fatty.
* Egyptian Fayoumi chickens. A native breed that can withstand extremely high temperatures, the Fayoumi dates back thousands of years. It is in danger of dying out, however, as breeders switch to Western high-laying species.
* Arracacha. This Inca root sometimes takes the place of potatoes in the Andes, as it is only half as expensive to plant and raise. Boiled or fried, it tastes something like a mixture of celery, cabbage, and chestnut, claims the FAO report.
* Tepary beans. A former staple of Indians from the southwest US and neighboring areas of Mexico, this bean can grow in poor soil under arid conditions.
* Carambola. A yellow, juicy fruit with both tart and sweet varieties. The FAO judges the carambola could be another fast-rising fruit star, such as the kiwi.