June 17, 2011
The July 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine carries an excellent piece on the importance of preserving both genetic diversity and farmer knowledge in meeting the world’s growing demand for food.
Food Ark, by Charles Siebert, highlights the efforts of several seed banks around the world including the Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, Norway that serve as essential keepers of genetic diversity and traits that could one day help us weather new crop diseases and climate change.
Siebert makes the case that the successes of modern agriculture have put us as risk for food insecurity. Our heavy reliance on mono-cropping vast fields seeded to genetically uniform and high yielding seeds have left us with an ever-dwindling list of crop varieties. Ninety percent of the historic fruit and vegetable varieties in the U.S. have disappeared. We have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties. The situation is the same with respect to livestock breeds, with 1,600 of the world’s 8,000 known livestock breeds are endangered or extinct.
This lack of genetic diversity puts us at risk for widespread crop losses due to a single disease or climate change shocks. The Irish potato famine and risks to the largely homogenous global wheat crop from stem rust serve as Siebert’s potent examples.
Siebert argues that maintaining genetic diversity, and in particular, seeds bred for local growing conditions, coupled with indigenous farmer knowledge about how best to grow them is perhaps our best hope for meeting the world’s growing food needs.
A 2005 NSAC policy position paper on plant and animal breeding issues is on our website.
On a related note, nominations to serve on the US National Genetics Resource Advisory Council, overseen by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, are due June 30, 2011. NSAC will be endorsing a slate of nominees.