- ADVERTISEMENT -
Published: July 2011

Food Ark

Conservationist Cary Fowler at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway

Food Ark

A crisis is looming: To feed our growing population, we’ll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply—but we must take steps to save them.

By Charles Siebert
Photograph by Jim Richardson

Six miles outside the town of Decorah, Iowa, an 890-acre stretch of rolling fields and woods called Heritage Farm is letting its crops go to seed. It seems counterintuitive, but then everything about this farm stands in stark contrast to the surrounding acres of neatly rowed corn and soybean fields that typify modern agriculture. Heritage Farm is devoted to collecting rather than growing seeds. It is home to the Seed Savers Exchange, one of the largest nongovernment-owned seed banks in the United States.

In 1975 Diane Ott Whealy was bequeathed the seedlings of two heirloom plant varieties that her great grandfather had brought to America from Bavaria in 1870: Grandpa Ott's morning glory and his German Pink tomato. Wanting to preserve such unique varieties, Diane and her husband, Kent, decided to establish a place where people could store and trade the seeds of their own past. The exchange now has more than 13,000 members and keeps in its walk-in coolers, freezers, and root cellars the seeds of many thousands of heirloom varieties. The farm grows a glorious profusion of select vegetables, herbs, and flowers around an old red barn that is covered in Grandpa Ott's stunningly deep purple morning glory blossoms.

"Each year our members list their seeds in this," Diane Ott Whealy says, handing over a copy of the Seed Savers Exchange 2010 Yearbook. It is as thick as a big-city telephone directory, with page after page of exotic beans, garlic, potatoes, peppers, apples, pears, and plums—each with its own name, personal history, and distinct essence. There's an apple known as Beautiful Arcade, a "yellow fruit splashed with red"; one named Prairie Spy, described as "precocious"; another dubbed Sops of Wine that dates back to the Middle Ages. There's an Estonian Yellow Cherry tomato obtained from "an elderly Russian lady" in Tallinn, a bean found by archaeologists searching for pygmy elephant fossils in New Mexico, a Persian Star garlic from "a bazaar in Samarkand."

Heirloom vegetables have become fashionable in the United States and Europe over the past decade, prized by a food movement that emphasizes eating locally and preserving the flavor and uniqueness of heirloom varieties. Found mostly in farmers markets and boutique groceries, heirloom varieties have been squeezed out of supermarkets in favor of modern single-variety fruits and vegetables bred to ship well and have a uniform appearance, not to enhance flavor. But the movement to preserve heirloom varieties goes way beyond America's renewed romance with tasty, locally grown food and countless varieties of tomatoes. It's also a campaign to protect the world's future food supply.

Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it's grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We've been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat.

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.

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we've come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we've let go extinct. The precipitous loss of the world's wheat diversity is a particular cause for concern. One of wheat's oldest adversaries, Puccinia graminis, a fungus known as stem rust, is spreading across the globe. The pestilence's current incarnation is a virulent and fast-mutating strain dubbed Ug99 because it was first identified in Uganda in 1999. It then spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen. By 2007 it had jumped the Persian Gulf into Iran. Scientists predict that Ug99 will soon make its way into the breadbaskets of India and Pakistan, then infiltrate Russia, China, and—with a mere hitch of a spore on an airplane passenger's shoe—our hemisphere as well.

Roughly 90 percent of the world's wheat is defenseless against Ug99. Were the fungus to come to the U.S., an estimated one billion dollars' worth of wheat would be at risk. Scientists project that in Asia and Africa alone the portion of wheat in imminent danger would leave one billion people without their primary food source. A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable, according to Rick Ward of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University.

The world's population is expected to reach seven billion people this year. By 2045 it could grow to nine billion. Some experts say we'll need to double our food production to keep up with demand as emerging economies consume more meat and dairy. Given the added challenges posed by climate change and constantly mutating diseases like Ug99, it is becoming ever more urgent to find ways to increase food yield without exacerbating the genetic anemia coursing through industrialized agriculture's ostensible abundance. The world has become increasingly dependent upon technology-driven, one-size-fits-all solutions to its problems. Yet the best hope for securing food's future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.

It took more than 10,000 years of domestication for humans to create the vast biodiversity in our food supply that we're now watching ebb away. Selectively breeding a wild plant or animal species for certain desirable traits began as a fitful process of trial and error motivated by that age-old imperative: hunger. Wild wheat, for example, drops its ripened kernels to the ground, or shatters, so that the plant can reseed itself. Early farmers selected out wheat that, due to a random genetic mutation, didn't shatter and was thus ideal for harvesting.

Farmers and breeders painstakingly developed livestock breeds and food crops well suited to the peculiarities of their local climate and environment. Each domesticated seed or breed was an answer to some very specific problem—such as drought or disease—in a very specific place. The North American Gulf Coast Native sheep, for example, thrives in high heat and humidity and has broad parasite resistance. On the remote Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay sheep can live on nothing but seaweed. Zebu cattle are more resistant to ticks than other cattle. In Ethiopia a small, humpless, short-horned cattle breed called the Sheko is a good milk producer that withstands harsh conditions and has resistance to sleeping sickness.

Such adaptive traits are invaluable not only to local farmers but also to commercial breeders elsewhere in the world. Finnsheep, for example, long raised only by a small group of Finnish peasants, have become vital to the sheep industry because of their ability to produce large litters. The Fayoumi chicken, an indigenous Egyptian species dating back to the reign of the pharaohs, is in great demand as a prodigious egg layer with high heat tolerance and resistance to numerous diseases. Similarly, the rare Taihu pig of China is coveted by the world's pig breeders for its ability to thrive on cheap forage foods and its unusual fertility, regularly producing litters of 16 piglets as opposed to an average of 10 for Western breeds.

The irony is that the dangerous dwindling of diversity in our food supply is the unanticipated result of an agricultural triumph. The story is well-known. A 30-year-old plant pathologist named Norman Borlaug traveled to Mexico in 1944 to help fight a stem rust epidemic that had caused widespread famine. Crossing different wheat varieties from all over the world, he arrived at a rust-resistant, high-yield hybrid that helped India and Pakistan nearly double their wheat production—and saved a billion people from starvation. This so-called green revolution helped introduce modern industrialized agriculture to the developing world.

But the green revolution was a mixed blessing. Over time farmers came to rely heavily on broadly adapted, high-yield crops to the exclusion of varieties adapted to local conditions. Monocropping vast fields with the same genetically uniform seeds helps boost yield and meet immediate hunger needs. Yet high-yield varieties are also genetically weaker crops that require expensive chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. The same holds true for high-yield livestock breeds, which often require expensive feed and medicinal care to survive in foreign climates. The drive to increase production is pushing out local varieties, diluting livestock's genetic diversity in the process. As a result, the world's food supply has become largely dependent on a shrinking list of breeds designed for maximum yield: the Rhode Island Red chicken, the Large White pig, the Holstein cow. In short, in our focus on increasing the amount of food we produce today, we have accidentally put ourselves at risk for food shortages in the future.

One cautionary tale about the perils of relying on a homogenous food source revolves around the humble potato. High in the Peruvian Andes, where the potato was first domesticated, farmers still grow thousands of otherworldly looking varieties. Spanish ships in the late 16th century first brought the tuber to Europe, where by the early 1800s it had become a reliable backup to cereal crops, particularly in the cold, rain-soaked soils of Ireland. The Irish were soon almost wholly dependent on the potato as their food staple. And they were planting primarily one prodigious variety, the Lumper potato, whose genetic frailty would be cruelly exposed by Phytophthora infestans, as fearsome a foe of potatoes as stem rust is of wheat. In 1845 spores of the deadly fungus began spreading across the country, destroying nearly all the Lumpers in its path. The resulting famine killed or displaced millions.

Current efforts to increase food production in the developing world—especially in Africa, largely bypassed by the green revolution—may only accelerate the pace at which livestock breeds and crop species disappear in the years to come. In pockets of Africa where high-yield seeds and breeds have been introduced, the results have been mixed at best. Countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi ended up sacrificing much of their crop diversity to the monocropping of imported, high-yield varieties subsidized by government programs and provided by aid organizations. Small farmers and pastoralists have gone deep into debt to pay for the "inputs"—the fertilizers, pesticides, high-protein feeds, and medication—required to grow these new plants and livestock in different climate conditions. They are like addicts, hooked on a habit they can ill afford in either economic and ecological terms.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |