Saturday, August 13, 2011

Food Diversity

Last month’s issue of National Geographic carried yet another story of the approach of the 7th billionth person, this one having to do with food production. Most people would automatically think that the food problem of a burgeoning society would be production of enough food and it is. As a planet we will have to double our food production to account for the new people and shifts in diet that are estimated to occur by 2050. However, there is another problem with the way we are going about doing this. Food crops are grown for various reasons such as color, durability, taste, productivity. Not too many are grown for safety anymore, but maybe they should be.

In the arctic there is an ark of sorts, an ark of seeds. The 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. Here many of world’s seed banks send their seeds as a kind of back up to the back up. It is a safe place because it is in a point of high elevation free from climate swings and disaster as well as being naturally chilled. Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world, fast. Of course this saving of seeds is not for taste, it’s for safety. As variety of food becomes smaller so does the genetic variations available to those breeds.

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. Here, 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. People are choosing to produce fewer varieties because they are able to produce more, better, with those varieties and so do so looking at the short term goal of volume of food production. So there is a push away from variety. Focusing too narrowly on producing more can, oxymoronically, lead to famine. The Irish potato famine is a great example of how relying on a narrow variety of food crops produced a large human population whose staple crop were they hit by a disease which lead to a steep decline in the human population. There are plenty of examples in the modern day as well and I am sure that there will be more as climate change continues to occur.
Diversity is important because when crop fails because of a change in climate, pests or disease, people suffer. In the past if there was a problem with popular crops humans could always go back to the wild varieties to find traits to interbreed that would overcome that problem. The problem now is that wild varieties are also becoming much scarcer as people are expanding further and further into every corner of fertile land with genetically narrow crops.
Both goals make sense, produce more to feed more and produce more variety to ensure safety. The challenge in the future will be to do both at the same time.