You might say we were risk averse. When I was growing up, the 5-generation family farm had cows (milk and beef), pigs, chickens and guinea fowl, fruit trees and berries. The main crops were cotton, maize, sorghum and soybean, rotated, but there were also vegetables and flowers. And there was a tractor and there were mules – each providing insurance in case the other broke down.
We must not rely on one single solution to improving crop diversity, but look at all our options. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
There was no reliable safety net then. Bad decisions led to hard times. We didn’t “bet the farm” on any one crop or strategy.
Oddly for farm folk, agro-conservationists of all stripes continue to squabble amongst themselves over how to conserve. Should the diversity of our agricultural crops be conserved ex-situ in genebanks or in-situ on farms and in natural habitats?
A majority employs the word “or”. It seems only a less vocal minority can imagine and actually promote a different formulation: ex-situ and in-situ.
Long ago Mark Twain warned “If you ever find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause, and reflect.” Twain was a master at poking holes in the mass psychology of folly. Perhaps he was on to something.
No single strategy for conserving crop diversity is perfect or fool-proof. Something can always go wrong. As an organization, the Global Crop Diversity Trust is constitutionally focused on ex-situ conservation. It supports genebank collections. It believes that this approach to conservation has great merit. Rigorous protocols can be established. Research on the diversity is facilitated. And those needing the diversity – for plant breeding, for example – can locate and acquire it easily, across borders, and according to recognized norms.
But we are not averse to pointing out and seeking to correct the pitfalls of ex-situ conservation, such as the damage that can be done when genebanks get caught in wars or suffer the ravages of persistently poor funding. To address these problems, we are building an endowment to provide sustainable funding, and we support the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Should Our Eggs be in One Basket?
The conservation of crop diversity on farms and in protected areas (for crop wild relatives) also deserves support. As 150 countries agreed at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1996, ex-situ and in-situ are “complementary” approaches.
We learned What Works in helping farmers share their innovative solutions and valuable local knowledge with each other, governments, development, and aid organizations. The second of a three part series on farming in conflict zones discussed Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, an area ripe with natural resources but beset by years of conflict and environmental degradation. And in this week’s innovation explains a Root Zone Temperature (RZT) Optimization technology which uses geothermal energy to help farmers control soil temperatures, dramatically increasing growth and production.
The food we eat can be a part of the problem, but it can also be the solution. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
In her contributing essay, “Impact of Growth in Factory Farming in Developing World,” Nourishing the Planet project co-director, Danielle Nierenberg, explains that the negative impacts of factory farming extend beyond harming animals to include increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the spread of disease. But, sustainable livestock production, including grass-fed livestock production and rotational grazing systems, can help mitigate climate change, increase small-scale farmer incomes, and help improve livelihoods and diets around the world. The food we eat can be a part of the problem, but it can also be the solution.
Recently I was being interviewed over the phone by a journalist and was trying to explain why crop diversity is important. “It’s the raw material for plant breeding,” I intoned.
Silence on the other end of the line.
Then the young woman, whispered “plants breed?” There was a stunned almost horrified edge to her voice.
My first thought was “didn’t your parents talk to you about all this?” Or maybe a high school biology teacher? Then it dawned on me. She was dealing with a double shock. First, that plants breed. And second, that there are plant breeders!
The Global Crop Diversity Fund works to ensure that plant breeding is possible - and food security more likely - by conserving the required crop diversity and making it available for breeding all around the world. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
It’s summer in Rome. Not long ago I was walking to work on a carpet of pollen. It coated everything. Sidewalks, terraces, cars, everything. A plant orgy all around me.
The young journalist who got more than she bargained for during our interview is probably not so different from my neighbors here in Rome. They endure the pollen season – unavoidable evidence of plants breeding – without wondering what’s going on. And, when they shop at the local market and bring home different varieties of apples, peaches and tomatoes, they don’t spend too much time thinking about the sex that lay behind those fruits or the development of the different varieties.
When it comes to sex, the difference between wild plants and our domesticated crops is that the latter need help.
Farmers replant their crops every year from either saved or purchased seeds. Natural selection for crops is mediated and overseen by professional plant breeders who decide which plants will be used to fertilize the others. They do so with a goal in mind: producing a new variety with characteristics drawn from each of the parents.
With hundreds of pests and diseases striking wheat, a crop produced in virtually every country and countless different environments, one can easily understand that wheat needs a hand. A breeder! In far too many countries, however, that person does not exist.
When a virulent new wheat disease burst on the scene in Uganda in 1999, there were no breeders. The disease has spread to the Near East and is headed towards the wheat growing regions of South Asia. A handful of genes that provide resistance have been located. They now need to be incorporated, i.e. bred, into new varieties. Actually, into all the different varieties tailored to all the diverse places where wheat is grown on the planet.
Wheat breeders are justifiably alarmed. If the disease strikes before resistant varieties are developed and deployed, losses of up to 80% can be expected.
A neglected pipeline
Unfortunately an FAO survey of plant breeders revealed that most felt plant breeding capacity was declining -for grains, vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, everything, ironically, except sugar plants. We have all become dependent on a tenuous cadre of plant breeders, the collections of crop diversity with which they work, and good luck.
Indeed, investments in plant breeding have languished or even declined, while the number of hungry has climbed over a billion. There’s a connection.
As much as we love food, we take its production for granted.
As a youngster I accompanied my grandmother each fall to the agricultural experiment station for western Tennessee, in the U.S. There she surveyed row after row of new soybean, cotton and corn varieties with her own eyes. She asked questions about their characteristics. Did they have this or that resistance? How did they stand up to the heat? What yield might she expect?
My grandmother understood plant breeding and the value of new crop varieties that kept pace with the enemy.
She was better armed for the struggle in the 1950s than millions of farmers are in Africa or almost anywhere in the developing world today. There was a system, a pipeline, delivering crop improvements and solutions.
In many countries, particularly in Africa, you could round up the few plant breeders and put them in a single mini-van for a trip to the fields. FAO’s Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building has assembled the sad statistics. Major crops lack even a single breeder. Last year’s – or last decade’s – variety competes against this year’s pest, disease and climate. The few plant breeders that toil away do so against heavy odds to serve a huge clientele.
Just as our domesticated crops need help to breed, plant breeders and farmers need help to do their breeding. One of the most reliable ways to increase the odds is to help them access a rich store of crop diversity.
Our singular job at the Trust is to help make that plant breeding possible – and food security more likely – by conserving the required crop diversity and making it available for breeding all around the world.
In this new series we ask farmers, project leaders, NGO’s, journalists, policy makers, funders and others we’ve met during our research, where they would like to see more agriculture funding directed. In this post, Jan Nijhoff, who works with the Common Market for Eastern and South Africa (COMESA) and Michigan State University in Lusaka, Zambia, explains why reaching the MDG #1—the goal of halving both the number of people who earn less than a dollar a day and the number of hungry people worldwide by 2015—will require African governments to spend 10 percent of their annual budgets on agricultural development.
MSU has been working in Africa with government research institutes and regional economic groups for the past 30 years, “dissecting the agriculture sector” and advising how to improve trade and identify the best investment opportunities, explains Jan Nijhoff, program coordinator of Michigan State University’s COMESA program
Through its Guiding Investments for Sustainable Agriculture Markets in Africa (GISAMA) project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, COMESA/MSU is helping funders determine where their money should go. They’re looking at things like the structure of commodity markets, as well as dissecting agricultural value chains to identify investment opportunities and needs. Through research done by both MSU and African researchers, COMESA/MSU will provide a “more evidence-based foundation for grants,” says Jan.
Ultimately, COMESA’s goals around agriculture are to increase productivity and stimulate the links between agriculture and the private sector. There’s a need, according to Jan, for more public-private partnerships that give fair prices to farmers and consumers—and this, according to COMESA, will require financial support from governments, as well as the opening of borders and encouragement of trade between countries.
Bio: Dr. Charles Benbrook is Chief Scientist at the Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984 Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held for seven years. In late 1990 he formed Benbrook Consulting Services.
(Photo credit: Feastorfamine.org)
On Nourishing the Planet: Promoting agricultural and economic development in Africa requires intimate understanding of the resources people have to work with, and the factors shaping the decisions farmers make about what to grow and how. Such understanding is a prerequisite to cost-effectively relax multiple constraints in unison. The “Nourishing the Planet” project excels at gathering and sharing this sort of key information and, for this reason, has much to contribute in shaping development assistant programs that produce meaningful, sustained results.
Can you describe the possible ways that organic agriculture methods can help improve farmers’ income, increase food security, and decrease world hunger?
If you dispassionately look at what is needed to promote productivity and food security in chronically food short regions, core organic farming principles and practices have much to contribute, and certainly far more than the GMO and chemical-intensive corn-soybean production system in the U.S. corn belt. This is particularly true in restoring soil fertility and reversing the steady decline in soil organic matter.
Six core principles and objectives of organic farming must form the foundation of sustainable food systems, and hence food security in Africa –
Build the quality of the soil by increasing soil organic matter;
Promote above and below-ground biodiversity for its inherent, multiple benefits (biological control, more diverse diet, lessening risk of catastrophic crop loss, etc);
Integrate crop and livestock operations to exploit synergies between the two;
Use crop rotations, cover crops, multi-cropping systems, and agro-foresty to utilize available sunlight and moisture more fully, especially in the spring and fall months;
Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and hot fertilizers because of their potential to burn up organic matter, kill or reduce populations of non-target organisms that play valuable roles in food chains ultimately helping to feed people, and pose risks to people living in close proximity to treated areas; and
Produce high-quality, nutrient dense products that will hopefully command a premium price in the market place, reflecting their true value.
What are some specific innovations, policies and techniques that could be implemented to promote organic agriculture while also improving livelihoods?
Obviously, the combination of new practices, inputs, and technologies needed will vary tremendously based on local conditions. Nearly everywhere, soil quality must be restored, a process that will require a number of years and a proper sequence of changes in management systems and inputs. What a farmer does in the first three years of this journey will differ considerably from common practices ten years down the road.
Early steps will be dependent to a greater degree on fertilizer and organic soil amendments from outside the farm, and will often need to be shipped hundreds of miles into the region, while in later years, much more of the organic materials needed to sustain soil quality will be generated on the farm or locally.
Unfortunately, many projects and policy initiatives have delivered uneven, unsustainable results because they stopped at just subsidizing fertilizer, and failed to support the farmer’s evolution toward more biologically-based methods to sustain soil fertility.
It is critical to support this incremental evolution, because the real and sustainable economic benefits to farm families kick in only after the transition is well along toward systems that have a high level of internal self-sufficiency, stability, and resilience.
It would be helpful for researchers and development organizations to provide recommendations for cost-effective trajectories of change in soil quality, including recommendations for the most cost-effective steps, and investments that will promote sustainable progress during each stage of the process.
More efficient capture and use of water, especially through micro-irrigation schemes, will also deliver significant benefits in many areas. Diversifying rotations to include small plots of several short season vegetable crops in various combinations will also deliver multiple benefits. Diversifying livestock enterprises to include more small livestock like chickens and rabbits is also a promising addition to the development assistance tool kit.
The lack of safe storage and markets for new crops, or difficulties in storing and utilizing new foods, often emerges as a major constraint to positive changes on the farm, and in terms of the diversity and quality of diets. It seems to me that this is an obvious area for development assistance programs to target resources.
Why should wealthy consumers care about hunger in other parts of the world?
For the same reason that everyone should – helping assure everyone has enough to eat is a universal moral imperative. There is no chance for peace and stability in a world where chronic poverty and hunger afflicts one-sixth of mankind. Hungry people are desperate people, and the actions they sometimes take, or embrace, to feed themselves and their families erode the fabric of civilization, just as erosion saps soil quality.
In your chapter, “Biotechnology: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem—or Both?” you make the point that developed nations should use biotechnology to better understand “the linkages between indigenous resources and knowledge and agricultural production and farm family well being.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
Some people are convinced that breakthroughs in plant breeding in Africa depend on access to, and use of a set of genes, markers and molecular technologies discovered and now used in the U.S. and Europe by plant biotech companies. I doubt it. I just don’t see Roundup Ready or Bt GE crops making much of a difference on most of the African continent.
Instead, I think that the modern tools of molecular biology should be deployed to understand and better utilize the genetic diversity that exists on the African continent. These tools are also extremely valuable in rooting out the subtle interactions between soil microbes, plants, pests, and the environment that can make or break a crop, and turn a nutritionally deficient diet into one that is both rich in nutrients and robust across seasons and circumstances.
There are many ways to work toward this goal that fully exploit cutting-edge science and technology. We need to find the pathways that will deliver tangible results more quickly and cost-effectively than creating a new food like Golden rice, which remains after many years and millions of dollars an intriguing technical challenge, but not a sound investment if the goal is to promote food security where it is currently lacking.
Can biotechnology be used to improve sustainable agriculture and farming in the developing world?
Sure, but the biotechnology applications will be very different than the GE crops now planted around the world.
In the publication, “The Impacts of Yield on Nutritional Quality: Lessons from Organic Farming,” you conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally produced fruits and vegetables. Can you give a few examples of why organic produce is more nutritious and how this knowledge can help farmers in the United States and Europe, as well as the developing world?
In the U.S. and Europe, there has been a steady decline over 40-plus years in the nutrient density of conventionally grown foods, driven largely by incrementally higher nitrogen fertilizer levels and crop yields. Agronomists call this essentially unavoidable relationship between yields and nutrient density the “dilution effect.” Organic farmers do not have access to the cheap sources of readily available nitrogen that serve as the fuel driving the dilution effect.
On average across most plant-based foods, organically managed crops mature a bit more slowly and produce fruit and vegetables that are somewhat smaller. But in terms of nutrient content per ounce or gram of apple, lettuce, carrot, or grapes, smaller is better.
There is also convincing evidence supporting the conclusion that in some years for some organic crops, a higher level of pest pressure, coupled with the lack of conventional pesticide applications, forces plants to divert energy from growth to defense mechanisms, which typically entail increased biosynthesis of plant secondary metabolites. Many of these are potent antioxidants and account for a significant slice of the unique health-promoting benefits – and flavors – of fruits and vegetables.
Supporters of biotechnology often make the argument GE crops are necessary to fight food insecurity as climate change and population growth put increased pressure on the food system. Can you give your thoughts on why or why not biotechnology can feed the world?
Today’s commercially significant GE crops are herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton, and Bt corn and cotton. These crops are designed to simplify weed and insect pest management and are planted, for the most part, in specialized, chemical-intensive systems. Alternative technology exists to produce the same amount of crops per acre, and likely a bit more at lower cost to the farmer. Based on these realities, I conclude that today’s commercial GE crops are making no unique contribution to world food security needs.
An argument could be made, in addition, that today’s GE crop technology has actually undermined progress toward increasing production and meeting global food security needs. The discovery and commercialization of today’s GE crops have totally dominated public and private plant breeding investments for nearly 30 years in three major crops, slowing the pace of progress in other areas of plant genetic improvement that would likely be of more direct benefit to a wider range of farmers around the world.
No one technology or farming system will emerge as universally optimal. Progress toward global food security will be accelerated by systemic efforts to promote diversity in farming systems and technologies. A healthy measure of experimentation is desirable in searching for optimal cropping patterns and production practices in a given region.
We must resist the enticing prospect that science and technology will deliver a magic bullet, or even a magic arsenal, that will miraculously optimize yields, stop pests in their tracks, always build soil quality, and thrive despite climate change. A sober reading of history suggests strongly that this is a pipedream.
Those arguing that global food security will be assured if we just unleash the powers of biotechnology are doing the world’s poor a grave disservice. I know that many biotech promoters feel the same way about people like me who feel just as strongly that the most rapid and sustained progress will come from agricultural development programs and investments grounded in the principles of organic farming and agroecology.
One would hope and expect that the World Bank, FAO, CGIAR, foundations, and development assistance programs will insist that fair and unbiased assessments are made of the net returns to alternative paths to development in the years to come, but thus far I see little evidence of this happening on the ground. The “Nourishing the Planet” project should do all it can to encourage the major funders and development organizations to sponsor credible, independent assessments. May the best approach emerge, and let’s hope that funders have the courage and political freedom to put the dollars behind the best system, in the hope of accelerating progress toward a goal shared by all.
Check out this Nourishing the Planet op-ed featured yesterday in one of Ethiopia’s most widely respected papers, the Addis Fortune. The op-ed discusses the importance of sharing traditional knowledge, practices, and innovations between farmers to help protect the environment, raise incomes, and improve food security. In Ethiopia we had the opportunity to learn about the work of the Institute for Sustainable Development, founded by Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group members Sue Edwards and her husband, Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, who are working to help farmers share ideas, increase crop yields, and manage their land with more sustainable methods.
Why should consumers, particularly in rich countries, care about agricultural diversity?
(Photo credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust)
Because they eat! Behind every packet of cereal, bag of salad or pre-cooked dinner there are a handful of different crop species– whether it is the corn in the glucose syrup or the oregano on the pizza topping. These crops are grown commercially and each is the subject of research and breeding with a long history of domestication that has got them to where they are now. For every crop variety that is now grown and sold commercially in some form or other in our supermarkets, hundreds or thousands of varieties have been used, tested or improved. Crop diversity is the basis of the foods we eat and the foods that our descendants will eat. So far nothing – no artificial foods – have replaced it!
What can the average consumer do to preserve biodiversity? What about farmers, how can they reintroduce or conserve biodiversity on the farm?
There is a multitude of ways to support the conservation of biodiversity. By keeping abreast of biodiversity issues you can make informed decisions about what you eat, what you buy, where you go on holiday, how you furnish your house, etc. There are sites specific to crop biodiversity on the web that you can follow (e.g. Global Crop Diversity Trust, Agrobiodiversity Network) A visit to a botanic garden will help you to appreciate diversity in its living form. Farmers’ markets or specialist shops also sell some of the more unusual varieties of apples, tomatoes or vegetables.
Many organizations focus on wildlife or biodiversity conservation. The majority of countries have a national genebank, where farmers are able to request for samples of some of the many thousands of varieties that are conserved. There are also NGOs and farmers’ or community groups that specialize in conserving traditional crops or varieties (e.g. Seed Savers Exchange in US)
How has the Crop Diversity Trust determined priority crops? Why are they being saved with more urgency?
The priority crops on which the Global Crop Diversity Trust focuses are determined by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty is signed or ratified by 138 countries, which have come together in order to ensure that crop diversity is shared freely across national boundaries. The Treaty recognizes that no one country has all the diversity it needs to sustain crop research and agriculture. In this aspect all countries are interdependent. The Treaty names 35 major crops (and further species that are animal forages) that together cover a major part of the diet of the world’s peoples, ranging from major crops like wheat and rice to more regionally-important crops like yam and pigeon pea.
The seed bank is being created for future catastrophe, but how does it take action to prevent the loss of more and more biodiversity in the present? Can you talk about some of your activities?
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is set up to house a safe copy of the diversity that is kept in genebanks around the world. Experience has shown us that keeping precious things in one place is a risky thing to do. People long ago stopped putting their savings under the bed. No one thinks twice about backing up the contents of computer hard disks – it is routine! This is how the Seed Vault works. War, typhoons, floods, financial disaster will continue to destroy the contents of genebanks but now countries or institutes can go to the Seed Vault and request the materials that they have safely put there for such an event.
The Trust is currently supporting more than 80 institutes in 68 countries to deposit their materials in the Seed Vault and also in other international organizations that are able to keep materials (especially for those crops that don’t produce seeds) safe for the long-term future.
We also have a unique granting system based on an endowment fund. Our feeling is that important international genebanks providing a service to the world by conserving and making available crop diversity would function more efficiently and soundly if at least the minimum essential conservation activities are securely funded for the long term. The endowment system allows us to provide financial support routinely, year after year, for the most essential conservation activities into the indefinite future.
What is your opinion of the role of GMOs in terms of sustainable agriculture and food security?
The Trust focuses on the conservation of diversity for use. Our passionate desire is to see that this diversity is used to its full potential for the benefits of all. We do not take sides in the political debates about plant breeding techniques. Some feel we should, but we are a small organization and to achieve our goals we must maintain a tight focus. In the long run, regardless of the outcome of the current GMO debates, we think everyone will appreciate what we are able to accomplish as a result of concentrating on the mission of the Trust. We understand that the mechanisms that are used to bring diversity into agriculture are many and evolving all of the time; some suited to certain situations better than others. Scientifically based discussion and debate is always to be welcomed.
In your article, “Of Pandas and Peas” you make the argument that people use the term biodiversity synonymously with nature but never think about it in terms of the food they eat. Can you elaborate on this and its implications for food security?
My aim in the article was to illustrate that there is a very utilitarian and everyday importance to biodiversity. There is an urgency and sympathy to save large charismatic animals for the very good reason that, among other things, they play a major role in maintaining forests, watersheds, oceans and every other kind of ecosystem. However, there is an even more immediate threat to our well being posed by the same trends causing habitat and biodiversity loss – a threat that has a serious and negative impact on the supply of our daily meals.
People’s dissociation between the threats to biodiversity and what we eat is perhaps understandable given that for the large part in rich countries there is an oversupply of rich and diverse foods. Food culture is very vibrant and alive in the world’s cities. It is hard to believe that it is under threat. But in countries or regions where farmers grow almost all that they eat, or in areas where families are suffering from a poor diet – in the Pacific, for instance, where rates of diabetes and obesity have rocketed, the dependence on biodiversity as a source of healthy food is felt much more intensely. It is essential that we do not lose that link between biodiversity and our food.
In your book Shattering, you write that the “loss of genetic diversity in agriculture is leading us to a rendezvous with extinction—to the doorstep of hunger on a scale we refuse to imagine.” What are future implications of this mass extinction and what role does the Trust have in preventing widespread food insecurity?
Let me reiterate the point I have been making above with an example. More than 40 years ago, a new highly productive form of wheat contributed so well to easing the anguish and insecurity in several countries worldwide, that the scientist, Norman Borlaug, who orchestrated its breeding received the Nobel Peace Prize. Wheat-consuming nations have benefited ever since from the varieties that he bred. In 1999, a new form of fungus disease appeared in Uganda that destroys most modern wheat varieties. The disease has spread into the Middle East and is being taken very seriously. Where do you suppose scientists are looking for a way to deal with the disease? Just as Professor Borlaug did, they are screening hundreds of varieties of wheat to find one that shows resistance to the disease. Where would we turn if we did not have that diversity available in genebanks?
This is what I mean when I say that for every tasty restaurant meal or take-away dinner hundreds and thousands of crop varieties have been cultivated, used, researched and depended upon.
The loss of crop diversity, if not halted, will end up removing the options our crops need to adapt to climate change, water shortages and energy and fertilizer constraints. And this will literally lead to a global catastrophe. To end on an optimistic note, this is an avoidable catastrophe. We know how to conserve crop diversity. This is precisely why I find working with the Global Crop Diversity Trust so satisfying. It gives my colleagues and me a chance to make a real contribution to current and future generations. And that is a huge privilege.
It was an inauspicious beginning. Days after the international community failed to establish legally binding measures to halt climate change, the UN launched the International Year of Biodiversity. Scientists predict that climate change will directly imperil one-fourth of the Earth’s species.
Farmers and more formally trained plant breeders use the diversity found in peas and other crops to improve the yields, disease, and pest resistance of the varieties in use today. (Photo credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust)
In the coming months, you can expect to hear about charismatic megafauna – whales, tigers, gorillas, pandas, etc. – as well as the diversity of species found in the oceans and tropical forests. You’ll be exposed to the organizations devoted to saving them. Most of all, you will be told about the threat of extinction. The issue of “endangered species” has dominated the biodiversity narrative since the 1980s when the term entered into common usage.
To many people, “biodiversity” is almost synonymous with the word “nature”, and “nature” brings to mind steamy forests and the big creatures that dwell there. Fair enough. But biodiversity is much more than that, for it encompasses not only the diversity of species, but also the diversity within species. This is the diversity upon which natural selection works, the diversity that fuels adaptation and evolution for everything from pandas to peas.
Unless we appreciate the critical role that intra-species biodiversity plays in the survival of species, we risk seeing extinction as a numbers game, as something that happens when the last individual dies. Extinction, however, is a process, not an event. It effectively occurs not when the last individual dies, but when the species loses the ability to adapt successfully. After that, it’s just a waiting game for the last individual to succumb. No species gets a free pass. In the game of life, less diversity means fewer options for change. Wild or domesticated, panda or pea, adaptation is the requirement for survival.
People and Plants
Whether we consciously realize it or not, the biodiversity with which we have most intimate historical, cultural, and biological connections is that associated with food plants. We all know that apples come in red, yellow, and green models, and we know some of the varietal names. But how many people realize that there are thousands of distinct varieties of potatoes, tens of thousands of varieties of beans, hundreds of thousands of types of wheat, and even more of rice?
This diversity, this cornucopia of genes, has arisen and persisted in large part because of the ancient and ongoing tie between peoples and plants. Farmers and more formally trained plant breeders use the diversity found in wheat and other crops to improve the yields, disease, and pest resistance of the varieties in use today. The process of varietal improvement is continuous. The bread you eat today is undoubtedly made from different varieties of wheat than 25 years ago, as new varieties have been continuously developed for higher yield and to stay one step ahead of ever-evolving pests and diseases.
Nevertheless, when we think about biodiversity, we rarely think about food. The number of crops we use for food is impressive enough, but the diversity within those crops is particularly notable for both agronomic and cultural reasons. Like other biodiversity, however, it is endangered.
As with pandas and many other wild species, the maize and sorghum varieties grown by subsistence farmers in Africa cannot and will not easily relocate in response to climate change. And staying where they are is hardly an adaptive strategy that inspires confidence. Even if such crop varieties were to survive, what would become of the farmers hit with devastating drops in production due to climate change?
Seed banks with their vast collections of crop diversity constitute a cultural corridor, a bridge through time that will help enable crops to adapt to climate change. The biodiversity that seed banks protect may not inspire our empathy as easily as pandas, but its loss would be catastrophic for many, many species.
The International Year of Biodiversity is now well under way. Charismatic biodiversity will be celebrated. Less charismatic biodiversity will be eaten.
Beginnings are often messy. Perhaps it matters little whether the international community chooses to celebrate crop diversity, but it profoundly matters that the international community takes action to conserve it.
In October, in Japan, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will convene for the tenth time. That occasion should commence not with gloom and doom and revelations of more extinctions. It should begin instead with a stunning announcement that steps have been taken to ensure the survival of the biodiversity upon which we most directly depend.
Technically and financially such an announcement is feasible now. This year. For any crop. For all crops.
Imagine such a beginning.
Better yet, for a year that started so poorly for biodiversity, imagine such an end.
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlights how Slow Food International is working to preserve traditional cooking practices in Yucatán, Mexico. Before the introduction of livestock and dairy by the Spanish in the early 1500’s, Mayans were able to get calcium from other sources, such as the indigenous and now relatively unknown vegetable, chaya—a leafy green similar to spinach. By helping farmers learn to grow indigenous vegetables organically and find local markets for their produce—and by providing nutritional education and outreach for school children—Slow Food International is improving livelihoods and diets. The organization is also providing tourists with the unique opportunity to enjoy traditions and tastes that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.