Friday, June 18, 2010

Food security and the variety of life

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Ask local and national govt about biodiversity and they will talk about species and habitats. Fine as far as it goes, there’s much to be done about both and too little action being taken. I’ve talked about loss of species previously. According to The Ecologist since the Second World War our country has lost 95% of flower-rich meadows, 30% of ancient woodland and 80% of lowland grassland. We’ve lost many thousands of miles of hedgerow, home to a significant proportion of our plants,mammals, bird, butterflies.... The World Resources Institute say that the worlds forest cover has shrunk by as much as half, that 58% of coral reefs are threatened, that two thirds of cropland suffers soil degradation to some degree. You dont hear enough about biodiversity at the genetic level though – and that’s vital to human welbeing, not least because it gives plant and animal breeders a resource to draw on to feed the world.

Within each species and sub-species exists a unique pool of genetic codes. This pool has enabled plants and animals to adjust to change ie its evolved by natural selection. This diversity is what gives our food its flavour, food value, resistance to disease, adaptability... We are allowing this pool – an invaluable resource - to diminish, cutting what we can draw on to develop plants and animals for food in the face of environmental change. Two very common foods –potatoes and wheat - illustrate the situation well.

The original home of the potato is the Andes, South America. Breeders are continually looking there for new genetic material – but as natural and semi-natural areas are cleared, built on, farmed and so on the range of genetic material is decreasing. Andean farmers have increasingly been encouraged to discard old potato varieties for newer, higher productivity ones. Artificial gene banks of seeds and living material are likely to be no substitute for the real thing! There is enormous value in preserving and growing traditional varieties and in protecting natural areas, preserving genetic material where it has developed.

Giant and powerful agrochemical and agribusiness interests are disregarding biodiversity, at genetic, species, habitat and ecosystem levels - and dominating the seed trade. Reducing variety – ideally to a few patentable, single-season, expensive cross-breeds, dependent on fertilisers and pesticides – makes sense and makes money for giant transnational companies. Those who dominate the seed trade also make the chemicals! Where they once used to be varied, wheat and corn aren’t so now - 30% of the worlds wheat comes from one parent plant and 70% of the corn comes from six parent plants. Narrow genetic variation means lower food security because in the event of plant pests/diseases successfully attacking wheat/corn we could lose a big chunk of what is grown.