Agriculture / Biodiversity / CGIAR / Food Security / Indigenous Breeds

Our ‘food ark’ is in trouble, says National Geographic Magazine

Jean Hanson shows Cary Fowler ILRI's Genebank in Addis Ababa

In ILRI’s Forage Genebank on the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa, Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and Jean Hanson, former head of ILRI’s Genebank, examine seed that was sent a few years ago for safe duplicate storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in the Norwegian Arctic Circle (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

The cover story of the current issue of National Geographic says a food crisis is looming.

‘To feed our growing population, we’ll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply—but we must take steps to save them. . . .

‘Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.’

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct. . . .

‘It took more than 10,000 years of domestication for humans to create the vast biodiversity in our food supply that we’re now watching ebb away. Selectively breeding a wild plant or animal species for certain desirable traits began as a fitful process of trial and error motivated by that age-old imperative: hunger. . . .

‘Farmers and breeders painstakingly developed livestock breeds and food crops well suited to the peculiarities of their local climate and environment. Each domesticated seed or breed was an answer to some very specific problem—such as drought or disease—in a very specific place. The North American Gulf Coast Native sheep, for example, thrives in high heat and humidity and has broad parasite resistance. On the remote Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay sheep can live on nothing but seaweed. Zebu cattle are more resistant to ticks than other cattle. In Ethiopia a small, humpless, short-horned cattle breed called the Sheko is a good milk producer that withstands harsh conditions and has resistance to sleeping sickness.

‘Such adaptive traits are invaluable not only to local farmers but also to commercial breeders elsewhere in the world. Finnsheep, for example, long raised only by a small group of Finnish peasants, have become vital to the sheep industry because of their ability to produce large litters. The Fayoumi chicken, an indigenous Egyptian species dating back to the reign of the pharaohs, is in great demand as a prodigious egg layer with high heat tolerance and resistance to numerous diseases. Similarly, the rare Taihu pig of China is coveted by the world’s pig breeders for its ability to thrive on cheap forage foods and its unusual fertility, regularly producing litters of 16 piglets as opposed to an average of 10 for Western breeds. . . .

‘[T]he green revolution was a mixed blessing. Over time farmers came to rely heavily on broadly adapted, high-yield crops to the exclusion of varieties adapted to local conditions. Monocropping vast fields with the same genetically uniform seeds helps boost yield and meet immediate hunger needs. Yet high-yield varieties are also genetically weaker crops that require expensive chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. The same holds true for high-yield livestock breeds, which often require expensive feed and medicinal care to survive in foreign climates. The drive to increase production is pushing out local varieties, diluting livestock’s genetic diversity in the process. As a result, the world’s food supply has become largely dependent on a shrinking list of breeds designed for maximum yield: the Rhode Island Red chicken, the Large White pig, the Holstein cow. In short, in our focus on increasing the amount of food we produce today, we have accidentally put ourselves at risk for food shortages in the future. . . .

‘Current efforts to increase food production in the developing world—especially in Africa, largely bypassed by the green revolution—may only accelerate the pace at which livestock breeds and crop species disappear in the years to come. In pockets of Africa where high-yield seeds and breeds have been introduced, the results have been mixed at best. Countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi ended up sacrificing much of their crop diversity to the monocropping of imported, high-yield varieties subsidized by government programs and provided by aid organizations. Small farmers and pastoralists have gone deep into debt to pay for the “inputs”—the fertilizers, pesticides, high-protein feeds, and medication—required to grow these new plants and livestock in different climate conditions. They are like addicts, hooked on a habit they can ill afford in either economic and ecological terms.

‘One response to the rapidly dwindling biodiversity in our fields has been to gather and safely store the seeds of as many different crop varieties as we can before they disappear forever. . . .

‘Today there are some 1,400 seed banks around the world. The most ambitious is the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault, set inside the permafrost of a sandstone mountain on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen just 700 miles from the North Pole. Started by Cary Fowler in conjunction with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the so-called doomsday vault is a backup for all the world’s other seed banks. Copies of their collections are stored in a permanently chilled, earthquake-free zone 400 feet above sea level, ensuring that the seeds will remain high and dry even if the polar ice caps melt.

‘Fowler’s Global Crop Diversity Trust recently announced what amounts to a recapitulation of Vavilov’s worldwide seed-gathering expeditions: a ten-year initiative to scour the Earth for the last remaining wild relatives of wheat, rice, barley, lentils, and chickpeas in order to “arm agriculture against climate change.” The hope is that this mad-dash scramble will allow scientists to pass along the vital traits of these rugged relatives, such as drought and flood tolerance, to our vulnerable crop varieties.

‘Still, storing seeds in banks to bail us out of future calamities is only a halfway measure. Equally worthy of saving is the hard-earned wisdom of the world’s farmers, generations of whom crafted the seeds and breeds we now so covet. Perhaps the most precious and endangered resource is the knowledge stored in farmers’ minds. . . .

‘The challenge has been to show it’s possible to increase productivity without sacrificing diversity. . . . Keith Hammond, a UN expert on animal genetics, says that in 80 percent of the world’s rural areas the locally adapted genetic resources are superior to imported breeds.

‘. . . Preserving food diversity is only one of many strategies we’ll need to meet that challenge, but it is a crucial one. As the world warms, and the environment becomes less hospitable to the breeds and seeds we now rely on for food, humanity will likely need the genes that allow plants and animals to flourish in, say, the African heat or in the face of recurring blight. . . .’

Read the whole article in the National Geographic: Food ark, July 2011.

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