According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations an estimated “75% of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000” (FAO, 2010); whereas a report published in the year 2002 by the journal Science stated that around 22% to 47% of our planet’s plants are now endangered (Graham, S., 2002). Development, globalization, the spreading of genetically modified crops and climate change are amongst the most pressing threats faced by plant diversity. The extinction of plant species does not only jeopardize the productivity that supports Earth’s ecosystems (Science Daily, 2011), but poses a severe danger to human beings by risking stability related to food security as well as the capability of surviving climate change in the future (The Crop Trust, 2017); as more diversity equals more of a possibility to adapt and cope with continuous changes (Conservation on Biological Diversity, 2015).
Approximately 30 crop varieties provide 95% of the food consumed by the global population (Conservation on Biological Diversity, 2015); while around 12% of the world’s surface is used for cultivation and 22% for pastures and rangelands (Leff, B., Ramankutty, N & Foley, J.A., 2004). Some years ago The Global Biochemical Cycles carried out a study and identified the 18 most predominant crops across the world; including barley, maize, millet, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat, cassava, potato, sugarbeet, sugarcane, pulses, soybean, groundnuts, rapeseed, sunflower, oil-palm and cotton (Leff, B., Ramankutty, N & Foley, J.A., 2004).
Added onto this very homogeneous use of the Earth’s surface, is that of man-altered seeds via the process of genetic engineering (GMO). Companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical, BASF and Syngenta have spent their time rearranging the molecular structure of existing plants so that they can patent and own them; to then sell herbicides, insecticides and similar products that go in line with the artificial changes to which the seed was submitted. Claire Hope Cummings, an environmental lawyer and writer of the book Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, explains how this process is very unpredictable and, thus, dangerous given the limited knowledge that we still have surrounding the reactions nature may have to these man-made inventions (Bonnie, P., 2008); as the process literally consists on blindly interrupting and molesting millions of years of evolution.
When it comes to the social side of the problem, GMO corporations do not allow farmers to save, reuse or study their seeds (Bonnie, P., 2008); practices that have made up the backbone of agriculture ever since its early beginnings. In fact, farmers often acquire these products solely to cut labor costs; and the only reason why GMO seeds have become so economically accessible is because of the subsidies and protectionism that their respective companies have received during the past years (Bonnie, P., 2008). As stated by Cummings, if there was an existing agriculture free market in the U.S. without any protectionism and billion-dollar subsidies, this technology would not be able to compete against biological agriculture.
A critical answer to the dwindling food diversity
Luckily, there are active individuals, initiatives, projects and organizations that have noticed the severity of this problem and have decided to act on it. The Food Tank recently published a list of 20 projects that are active in preserving agricultural biodiversity; consisting of:
These organizations do everything from campaigning on the preservation of diversity to imparting workshops and from storing seeds to encouraging the use of eco-efficient methods.
What can you do to help?
Though seed banks and similar initiatives are indeed of outmost importance and completely necessary, they are still vulnerable to events such as natural disasters. A great impact action is to plant native seeds that grow within your region. In your garden or in a pot; by planting a few non-GMO seeds and taking care of them you will be contributing to tackling this troublesome situation. Epic Gardening and The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance can guide you when it comes to which seeds to buy and where.
Another way you can help is by supporting seed banks, seed exchange initiatives or networks. You don’t necessarily have to give money; you can volunteer or help them spreading the word about the issue and their projects. Lastly, back local food stores that sell organic and seasonal foods and try to avoid purchasing GMO products as much as you can.
By carrying out the actions mentioned above you will become an ultimate seed keeper. You will immediately decrease your contribution to soil, water and air contamination; you will protect the diversity of our planet, aid in securing the food supply to current generations and generations to come and, most importantly, you will be promoting the rise of a society that puts life above all else.
Bonnie, P. Association “Why Monsanto & GMOs Pose a Mortal Threat to Seeds & Crop Biodiversity” (2008) News. Organic Consumers, 30 June 2008. https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/why-monsanto-gmos-pose-mortal-threat-seed-crop-biodiversity
Conservation on Biological Diversity “Biodiversity for Food Security and Nutrition” (2015) Conservation on Biological, 2015. https://www.cbd.int/doc/newsletters/development/news-dev-2015-2013-07-en.pdf
FAO “Crop Biodiversity: Use It or Lose It” (2010) Media. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 26 October 2010. Web. 8 September 2017. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/46803/icode/
Graham, S. “Global Estimate of Endangered Plant Species Triples” (2002) Sustainability. Scientific American, 1 November 2012. Web. 8 September 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-estimate-of-endang/
Leff, B., Ramankutty, N & Foley, J.A. “Geographic Distribution of Major Crops Across the World” Global Biochemical Cycles 18.1 (2004) Web http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2003GB002108/full
Perroni, E. “Twenty Initiatives Saving Seeds for Future Generations” (2017) Agriculture. Food Tank, 2017. Web. 8 September. https://foodtank.com/news/2017/07/seed-saving-initiatives/
Science Daily “Loss of Plant Diversity Threatens Earth’s Life-Support Systems, Experts Say” (2011) Science News. Science Daily, 24 March 2011. Web. 8 September 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110303153116.htm
The Crop Trust “Crop Diversity: Why It Matters?” (2017) Our Mission. The Crop Trust, 2017. Web. 8 September 2017. https://www.croptrust.org/our-mission/crop-diversity-why-it-matters/