The urgent need to support agricultural biodiversity from soil to plate
Last week, the government of Norway, Crop Trust and Nordic Genetic Resource Centre — entities that jointly support the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — hosted a historic Seed Summit culminating in the largest deposit of seeds into the Vault since its 2008 opening. The deposits were made by international and regional genebanks, national institutions and civil society organizations from all continents, bringing the total number of seed samples stored in the Vault to more than one million, and the total number of depositors to 85. Among them were first-time depositors were the Cherokee Nation (USA), University of Haifa (Israel), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (Morocco), Julius Kühn Institute (Germany), Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, Baekdudaegan National Arboretum (South Korea), Suceava Genebank ‘Mihai Cristea’ (Romania) and Kew Gardens (UK).
I was asked to keynote the landmark event, emphasizing the urgent need for agricultural biodiversity and importance of seeds from field to plate. Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago. The staggering loss of most crop varieties has happened in the last 100-odd years, and the creation and consolidation of the modern seed market has taken root in the last forty. In the long trajectory of how we have fed ourselves, these changes in biodiversity are quite radical and new. They‘re changes that, like the seed, can evolve into what will will sate our deepest hungers, replenish ecosystems and sustain communities. The full text of the speech follows.
“It’s an honor to help launch this historic event. These images were taken by Svjetlana Tepavcevic, a photographer born and raised in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia whose documentation of seeds is what she describes as a meditation on the ways we relate to the natural world. Seeds connect us to the continuum of life. They are the beginning and end — and the beginning all over again. And they’re what inspired me to change my life.
In 2012, I quit a job in academia that I couldn’t get fired from, sold my house and gave away my car to embark on a five-year journey across six continents to better understand the stories of seeds. It was a decision I made after meeting three people: Stefano Padulosi, senior scientist at Bioversity International, part of the alliance with CIAT, Cary Fowler, now a senior advisor to the Crop Trust, and Luigi Guarino, the Trust’s director of science.
They not only impressed upon me the ways in which seed stories are multiple — fuel, fiber, medicine and food — but explained the myriad ways they’re in peril. Of course, I knew animals and plants were endangered and that we had lost some varieties of fruits and vegetables, but they felt far from my plate. What I didn’t know until that summer of 2012 was that the staggering loss of biodiversity threatens all food. It threatens our very existence — and the existence of life on earth.
Agricultural biodiversity — or agrobiodiversity — is the foundation of agriculture and food. It comes out of the connection between:
- the microorganisms, plants and animals that we eat and drink;
- all the inputs that support the development of what ends up on our plate, like pollination or the vitality of soil;
- plus, non-living factors that impact our ability to grow and gather food, like temperature or the structures of farms.
Overlay the socioeconomic and cultural conditions that influence what we eat, and the points of degradation become clear:
- on the level of ecosystems — in challenges like deforestation and the ongoing burning of the Amazon;
- on the level of species — in microbes and in plants, animals and aquatic life;
- and in the loss of diversity within species — on a genetic level, in plant materials like seeds.
Not all of our food comes from seed, but they are the center. The building blocks of every meal we eat — our fruits and vegetables, our grains and pulses, plus the meat that’s raised on grass and grain.
Seeds are among our most intimate points of contact with nature. They’re stories that we consume. That nourish and sustain. Stories nurtured by people who dedicate their lives to transforming nature into culture, as what they touch becomes part of us.
So how do we feed one another? And how will we feed one another? These answers are also held within seeds — sustained by the extraordinary depositors in this room — and the millions of subsistence farmers who will never venture into a place like Svalbard but deserve our equal admiration. Farmers who are deeply connected to seed production, part of lineages responsible for the evolution and stewardship of that which nourishes us. People who toil to put food on their tables — and on ours.
One year ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a landmark report on agrobiodiversity. It revealed of the roughly 6,000 plant species used for food, only nine account for 2/3 of the world’s crop production. Only 30 crops supply 95 percent of the world’s calories. One-third of global fish stocks are over harvested. And most of our milk, meat and eggs comes from just a handful of animal species.
This is part of a broader biodiversity challenge that was brought to the fore last May when the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services revealed that 1 out of 8 of the world’s plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. ‘We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,’ said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that oversaw the study.
Now add to this, research analyzing 50 years of data on global diets that confirms a worldwide trend toward sameness: meals made up of wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, soybean and palm oil in the same types and same amounts. In areas of food insecurity, increased calories are vital, but there’s a downside to this homogeneity. The reduction of diversity — in both the types of foods and varieties within foods that we eat — is dangerous for the same reason investment experts tell us to diversify our financial holdings: putting all our eggs in one basket increases risk. One disease, one pest, the volatility of a changing climate can imperil them all.
This loss of agrobiodiversity impacts every strand in our food web: from soil to seed to pollinator, from plant to fish to animal. A steady degradation that has and will transform not only what and how we eat, but who will have the resources to eat at all.
For those in the Global North, it may seem unfathomable to contemplate loss. Our supermarkets are chock-full of a dizzying array of foodstuffs. But look closer, and you’ll start to see what the research reveals: a handful of crops dominate. One variety — like the Cavendish banana — stands strong on store shelves as a stand-in for many. Behind abundance is willful scarcity.
So how did we get here?
This loss of diversity is the result of interconnected factors, some of which people are increasingly aware of like climate change — but also for less-obvious reasons like globalization, trade agreements and geopolitics. Plus, urbanization, changing diets and a growing disconnection between farmers and consumers.
But the leading factor, according to the FAO report, is how we use and manage our land and water — a shift driven by industrialized agriculture. Farmers worldwide have been incentivized to grow genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties of crops over local plant varieties known as landraces.
Look, for millennia, we’ve made decisions about what to grow and eat — and what to not grow and not eat. That’s what agriculture is: a series of decisions we and our ancestors have made about what we want our food and food system to look and taste like.
But our ability to make these decisions is being compromised in ways that are unprecedented. The United States, for example, has, by one calculation, lost over 90 percent of fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s. While only 10 percent of the rice varieties that China grew in the 1950s are still consumed today.
We grow food to feed the masses with diminished concern for nutritional value or the impacts that megacrops grown in monoculture have on local communities and the broader food system. And, despite these efforts, we‘re failing. We are failing to feed the masses.
For decades, the number of hungry people had been on a decline, but the 2019 State of Food Security & Nutrition in the World Report shows that, today, more than 820 million people don’t have enough food to eat. While, at the same time, overweight and obesity continue to rise, contributing to 4 million deaths annually.
We overconsume energy-dense, processed foods, but eat fewer foods rich in micronutrients. Studies show this dual challenge — the narrowing of variety in our diets coupled with an increase in nutritionally poor processed foods — has contributed to the global epidemic of malnutrition that shows up as both hunger and obesity. So we don’t just need to be fed; we need to be fed well.
And the challenge, of course, isn’t simply an issue of availability; it’s one of access. Food — and the resources required to buy food — aren’t efficiently or equally distributed. It’s why some of the hungriest people in the world are smallholder farmers — the over 500 million people responsible for feeding much of the world’s population.
The people who grow food are too poor to buy it.
Farmers are further constrained by commercialization. Four companies now control over 60 percent of industrialized seed — an unprecedented level of ownership and control over plant genetic resources. This not only impacts costs and choices for farmers, but also limits how seeds are used and exchanged for seed saving and for investigations led by farmers, public researchers and independent breeders.
The refrain we hear, time and again, is that the only way to feed our hungry planet is by cultivating vast monocultures of a handful of high-yielding plants and other foods. Under this industrialized model, crop yields have increased, and people have been fed. And that’s no small feat.
But we need to sustain multiple forms of agriculture to feed people — big and small — because while smaller forms of agriculture may reap lower yields depending on how crops are cultivated, under the industrial model, biodiversity has decreased to an extent that food security remains compromised — and may be threatened in the future.
And this challenge isn’t new. The genetic bottleneck was, in part, the cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, when one-third of the population was dependent on potatoes for food and one-eigth of the population — about 1 million people — died when a disease known as potato blight ravaged the crop. It also contributed to Southern corn leaf blight, which wiped out one-fourth of American maize in 1970, resulting in losses of around $1 billion USD. And it exacerbates the proliferation of wheat rust, known as the ‘polio of agriculture’ — a family of fungal diseases that can cause crop losses of up to 100 percent in untreated, susceptible wheat. It has devastated crops in Africa, Europe and across Asia.
The way we now grow and raise food is anathema to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger, reducing poverty and supporting good health and well-being.
But the good news is that the solutions to these challenges are also found in the seed. It’s why conservationists past and present have fought so hard to save these precious resources.
We can think back to Nicolai Vavilov, one of the world’s greatest plant explorers, traveling to 64 countries on five continents to collect seeds as he developed his theory on the centers of origin of cultivated plants. Vavilov launched his efforts in 1916 and worked tirelessly until he was arrested in 1940 for holding scientific ideals that Stalin opposed.
After a year and a half of eating frozen cabbage and moldy flour in the Soviet gulag, he died. The man who taught the world so much about the foundations of food and tried, for over half a century, to avert famine died of starvation.
Vavilov’s colleagues in Leningrad — now St. Petersberg — suffered a similar fate. During the siege of Leningrad, with Nazis bombarding the city, a group of scientists barricaded themselves in the basement of the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry to safeguard nearly half a million seeds and other plant materials. They worked in shifts to continuously watch over the collections, protecting them from rats, intruders — and even their own hunger. Because they were hungry.
That winter of 1941 was punishing. It was bitter cold, and food supplies to Leningrad had been cut off. To survive, people boiled leather belts and purses into jelly and ate animals found on the streets. Some are believed to have resorted to cannibalism.
Among the thousands who died of starvation were nine scientists and staff from the Vavilov Institute who died surrounded by food. As Cary Fowler, the former executive director of the Trust, wrote, ‘The curator of the rice collection died surrounded by bags of rice. While scientists Kameraz and Voskresenskaia succumbed, protecting their potatoes to the very end.’
The collection was too precious to eat.
More recently, Debal Deb has sustained rice diversity in eastern India. On just over 2 acres of leased land, Deb grows over 1,000 varieties of indigenous rice that he has collected over two and a half decades. Varieties that proved to be invaluable when Cyclone Aila devastated the Bengal Delta in 2009. Deb’s indigenous rice bank distributed four traditional, salt-tolerant varieties to farmers in the Sundarban islands. They were the only ones who reaped a harvest the next season.
And there are conservationists Ahmed Amri, Mariana Yazbek and their colleagues at ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. Their genebank was once housed in Aleppo, Syria — an area that’s part of the Fertile Crescent — the birthplace of agriculture, where crops have been sown for 10,000 years.
Staff sent nearly 140,000 seed samples out of Syria as part of their safety duplication process — what was essentially a rescue mission for their seeds before the civil war reached the northern part of the country where the center’s headquarters were located. Staff shipped ancient varieties and wild ancestors of wheat, barley, chickpea, faba bean, lentil and forage crops because, for those who may not know, ICARDA holds one of the biggest collections of these seeds in the world, including plants that are now extinct or endangered in their natural habitats. Seeds that will be essential as the world gets drier and hotter. Seeds that could have been lost — had they not been backed up here in the Global Seed Vault.
In the fall of 2015, 128 boxes — holding around 38,000 samples — were withdrawn to be sown at research stations in Lebanon and Morocco. They have been successfully regenerated, allowing the genebank to, once again, distribute these genetic resources to requestors around the world. This withdrawal was the first — and only — time in the vault’s history that seeds have been removed. And we hope it’s also the last. But experience suggests it won’t be.
It underscores why we need stored collections. Because these seeds … they’re precious. They are our legacy — our food, our work, our past, our present. And, in the face of so many unknowns, our future.
Here in this ice desert of Svalbard, 800 kilometers from the North Pole, seeds remain frozen in time — secure and stable, but no longer evolving. And that is why we also need seeds saved in situ — which is Latin for ‘in place’ — preserved in the wild and on farms. This form of conservation allows for a dynamic response to changing environmental and social conditions.
In the wild, plants can flourish with limited human intervention and also be accessed for foraging. A recent study led by CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, found forests and trees support diverse crop production and, in the majority of landscapes, lead to improved diets.
When we preserve biodiverse plant materials in situ on farm, we sustain crops that are rooted in the community, not imposed from outside, and preserve traits that are fundamental for adaptive evolution in response to our changing world. We utilize local knowledge on not only cultivation, but ways to harvest and cook diverse foods.
The large maize population maintained by campesino agriculture in Mexico, for example, not only preserves genetic diversity, but also allows for the development of potentially beneficial mutations. And these landrace varieties aren’t just about genetic composition. They’re an expression of place — of history and identity, memory and tradition.
And that leads to a form of conservation that belongs to every one of us. We not only save biodiverse crops ex situ in stored collections and in situ in the wild and on farm but also in vivo, in life, on the plate.
We save biodiverse foods by savoring them. By stretching our palates beyond the small handful of crops that dominate the global standard diet; by frequenting the markets where more diverse foods are sold; and by supporting farmers, seed savers, chefs, everyone who recognizes that diversity in all its manifestations, we become stronger and more resilient.
‘Eating,’ author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry reminds us, ‘is an agricultural act.’ Although our food system is often perceived as an abstract thing, it’s a dynamic entity made up of relationships that include every single one of us. A system intertwined — and inescapable.
Farmers can’t sustain biodiversity if there isn’t an appetite — or a market — for it because there aren’t any policies or protocols that reward them for their biodiversity custodianship. (Though I’d like to help support this effort, if anyone needs help.)
And these financial challenges aren’t limited to farmers. The lack of resources is one of the biggest threats facing the world’s genebanks. Despite their obvious importance, ex situ repositories are woefully underfunded, which compromises their ability to properly store or protect seeds and other genetic materials.
Svjetlana Tepavcevic — the photographer who generously allowed me to showcase her photos — says she documented seeds because ‘to understand the world, we sometimes need to focus on the small details and glean a picture of the whole from these small insights.’ This is also what the seed offers. So I leave you with this question: If the stories of seeds are the stories of us, what seeds are we planting? And how do we sustain seeds we want to grow?
Today, no country is self-sufficient when it comes to the genetic resources needed to sustain food security. We need each other; we feed each other. We all have power in shaping the food system and must take action — seed by seed and meal by meal.”