Protecting the Food Ark

This month’s National Geographic features an article, titled Food Ark, about rapid loss of crop diversity worldwide. The article dips into the myriad reasons why loss of diversity is happening, and why the loss of crop diversity is one of the most critical issues facing agriculture

For 12,000 years, farmers have bred and tended crops. This slow, careful selection has improved wild plants into the valuable crops we recognize today. Each variety of seed carries thousands of particular genes that combine to produce its unique traits – resistance to particular diseases, ability to cope with too much water or too little, ability to weather frosts or scorching heat, unique tastes and textures, storability, and more. These diverse traits are necessary for our food supply to adapt to changing conditions and future diseases.  Now global climate change is making them more important than ever.

But the unique traits of heritage crops are disappearing rapidly. As National Geographic explains:

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.

National Geographic's illustration of crop extinction, based on RAFI's studyRAFI’s 1983 study on crop extinction gets its own full-page spread in the National Geographic – because no more recent study exists. In 1983, we found that about 93% of seed varieties sold in the US in 1903 were extinct by 1983. For example, commercial seed catalogues in 1903 offered 497 varieties of lettuce. In 1983, on 36 of those varieties were found in our national seed collection. That’s a staggering loss.

One reason for this is that, as ownership of seed markets consolidates to a handful of corporations, farmers have fewer choices about what kind of seed they buy. Companies often patent the genetic code in addition to the seed itself. This means farmers and independent researchers can’t breed new varieties from that plant, and they can’t save seed to plant next year. Farmers are becoming the renters of seeds, not their caretakers.  As a result, every year, crop varieties disappear.

So what can we do?

We can start by asking the USDA to fund badly-needed research and dedicate itself to finding new solutions. If that happens, our next steps will have a much better chance of making a real impact.

One first step is bring our federal support for classical breeding back into balance. The overwhelming majority of federal research funds go to developing corporately-owned varieties. These crops are designed to grow over a vast areas and to produce income for the companies that hold a patent on their genes. What’s missing is a parallel public system that values and improves breeds publically owned breeds, which belong to everyone. Public ownership allows farmers to save seeds. It gives farmers and researchers access to the resources to develop varieties that meet the specific, changing needs of farmers worldwide.

Classical breeding is a proven way to improve and protect our food supply. It’s has also been shown to be extremely cost effective. An NC State study found that transgenic breeding costs at least 25 times more than classical breeding. The study adds,

Assuming 10,000 consequential genes in maize, a farmer currently pays about 8/10 of a cent per gene in a bag of hybrid seed, but $30 US for the Bttransgene, a factor of 3,000+ times more for a gene that…results in a net income loss almost as often as a gain, when compared to conventional hybrids

Boston, Romaine and Oak Leaf letttuce
A variety of lettuces and greens at a farmers market in RAFI’s home state of North Carolina. Each variety is the result of millennia of farmers’ work, and a survivor of a global extinction, in which thousands of similar varieties are disappearing forever

The conclusion: Patented and genetically engineered breeds are good sources of profit, so they have received most of the attention, funding, and research in recent years. But classical breeding is less expensive for farmers and researchers. It also maintains and protects existing genetic material by growing and tending heritage crops that will be the building blocks of new varieties. For universities and researchers in the public sector, he argues, classical breeding makes the most sense.

Congress has repeatedly called on the USDA to increase funding for classical breeding. The last Farm Bill established it as a priority for federal research dollars. Yet, according to a new white paper by the National Organic Coalition, almost no funding has actually been awarded. In fact, the report finds that, of 127 projects funded from 2009-2011, only one, a $210,000 grant, was for classical breeding. The failure to fund classical breeding holds the research community back. Plant breeders need research funding to be able to meet farmers’ diverse needs, increase the efficiency of fuel crops, support regional diversity, and develop resistance to pests and disease. Without it, our farmers don’t have access to the crop choices they need to be competitive and produce a dependable food supply.

Another step towards finding ways to protect crop diversity is to have a federal body dedicated to that purpose. The USDA announced in May that it will reconvene the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council. They are expected to announce the nine appointees to the council sometime after late July. We hope those nine people will be genuinely dedicated to practicing good stewardship of crop diversity.

The national and international solutions that we pursue need to be as varied as the crops we’re trying to protect. The National Geographic article opens with a three-page, fold-out picture of former RAFI staffer Cary Fowler in front of his Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a store-house of the world’s agricultural genetic diversity in the cold safety of a Norwegian glacier. Seed banks are critical to protecting our fast-disappearing crop diversity, because they preserve varieties that might otherwise disappear forever. But storing seeds away in safety is, of course, not enough. Crop varieties in seed banks aren’t adapting to changing climates and new diseases. They aren’t being evaluated in light of new conditions and new markets. They aren’t in the hands of the people who created them – millions of farmers worldwide. Heritage crops in seed banks and fields alike need to be valued – concretely valued, with funding and policies in place to protect them.

If the USDA lives up to Congress’s expectations and takes its responsibility to act for the public good seriously, there’s a much better chance that those crops will survive, and that farmers and researchers will have the access they need to protect and improve them.

As National Geographic brings attention to this issue, the end of Cary Fowler’s book, Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, is just as relevant now as when he and Pat Mooney wrote it for RAFI in 1990:

We are not…required to be scientists or ambassadors, for remember it was “amateurs” who domesticated our food crops and helped create diversity. Instead we are called on to help preserve the diversity handed down to us. Whether we be scientists or politicians, farmers or factory workers, gardeners or teachers, we each have a special role to play in passing this gift on to the next generation. The manner in which we meet this challenge will largely determine how – or whether – future generations will live on this planet.

So let’s get to work.

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