Variation Matters: Selective Breeding is a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

Sue Senger
Dec 6, 2019 · 7 min read

Small farms can create regionally adapted plants and animals

Walk into any grocery store, and your eye is met with a mind-boggling array of fruit and vegetables. There are shapes and colors and sizes to suit our wildest cooking experiences, right at our fingertips every day.

But look a little closer. Take a look at the apples, for example. Although there are separate types, within any one bin the product is nearly uniform. All the Macintosh apples look exactly the same. All the Granny Smiths. And so on.

Ask any farmer, and they will tell you that apples don’t exactly come off the tree this way. Off any one tree, there are apples with bumps and bruises, insect damage, a slight variation on the size or shape, or in their color patterns. But out of all the apples produced, only the near perfect ones are shipped out to the store and put on display.

Perfection on display ( Photo by Olivia Colacicco on Unsplash)

As consumers, these highly uniform displays have trained us to expect perfection.

We forget that variation exists, that each apple is not created perfect. We are conditioned to believe that uniform is what we want.

But variation is more important now in the face of climate change than ever before. Maintaining genetic diversity of our food crops is critical to the future of food around the world. And the fundamental element of genetic diversity is variation in traits.

Among all the plants and animals that we currently grow around the world for food, some are better adapted to certain conditions than others.

Some thrive during a flood, or a drought. Some can tolerate a sudden cold snap. Some take the heat and keep right on tasting great. These variations are critical for developing our best food crops of the future. Without this underlying variation, we have nothing to select from.

But here’s the catch — we need the eyes of experienced people working with these crops to pick up on what might be the next great variant — to see it and realize that this could be a solution for the future. Who will do this work?

We are facing a food crisis, in part, because industrial agriculture has narrowed down the genetics of our food plants and animals. When only one type of corn or wheat or soy or pea is produced over millions of hectares around the world, there is little room or market left for the remaining types — for the the ones with more variation. They stop being produced. Pretty soon there is really only one type left, and the variation (and genetics behind it) are lost forever.

Then what happens if this main type — this one corn or pea or wheat — cannot survive the new climate realities. What then?

We need the other types to work with, to breed from, to find the variants that can still produce food under the new climate regimes. These types are surviving in the hands of small farmers around the world.

Types of dent corn used mostly for flour and corn meal (Photo by julian mora on Unsplash)

Now more than ever, small farms and the plants and animals they breed, are critical to the future of global food security.

Small farmers have been the ones who have continued to grow heirloom plants and heritage livestock breeds. They have continued to work with and adapt these animals to different regions and different forms of husbandry. They have maintained the critical skill sets around selective breeding and genetic conservation.

This is the genetic material the world needs to make sure our food survives climate change, and us along with it.

The fastest way forward in a climate change world, is to support small scale farmers that work with heritage plants and animals.

Selective breeding is where the parent plants or animals are chosen for their specific traits, and then offspring are raised and evaluated. Only the best offspring are used in subsequent breeding programs. Over time, the plant or animal is honed to the environment in which it is being raised.

It works like this. You start by carefully selecting your best individuals. You might select your most productive plants or the sweetest ones or the ones that didn’t have insect or disease issues, or the ones that were ready to harvest first. These are the parent plants you work with. The seeds of these plants are used exclusively to create the next crop.

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

You choose your selection criteria — and that is what you focus on.

If you are working with animals you might select the ones that produced the most meat or eggs on the least amount of feed, or the ones that shed their woolly coats the fastest and so handled the heat, or the ones that consistently produce more high quality offspring than any other. Again, you set the criteria for selection, and then you try to make it better and better by choosing to breed ONLY your best adapted animals.

Every time these breeding decisions get made, it’s a roll of the dice. The resulting offspring will (hopefully) represent a better plant or animal for that regional climate. And the process starts again — evaluate, select, breed.

But someone has to be doing this work and monitor the results, and try again. And then again. Continuing to drive towards better quality and better production in that area.

Laboratories are not going create better adapted animals in a bottle. To KNOW if a plant or animal is going to survive the reality of a climate change world, whether it is a new genetic modification or an old-fashioned selectively bred individual, those plants and animals must be raised out there, in the real world.

This is why it is so critical to support small scale, local farmers — the ones breeding for regional resilience. Because it takes time and skill and monitoring to figure out which plants, which animals, are able to handle the roller coaster ride that climate change is throwing us on and still produce food right where we live. And it takes many small farms, all working on this, to provide enough genetic breeding lines to ensure that the baseline variation is never lost in the process.

Giant monoculture fields will either live or die in the face of disease and climate turmoil. Warehouse barns full of nearly identical animals will also live or die in the same way. And if they all die, the implications for food security globally could be disastrous.

You need look no further than the ongoing disaster that African Swine Fever has caused for Chinese protein production, with over 100 million pigs destroyed and counting, to see a real world example of what happens when things go wrong. The consequences are frightening.

More of this same thinking will not secure our future. Our modern agriculture systems are incredibly vulnerable to climate change and the forces of disease and pests that comes along with it.

But small farms have the opportunity to search for and develop locally resilient plants and animals. There are disease resistant plants and animals out there. They need to be identified and used in breeding programs — not culled with the rest of the field or flock in some vain attempt at containment.

Now more than ever we need dedicated people working to diversify our food systems. We cannot leave our fate in the hands of multi-national food corporations whose primary objective is shareholder profit.

We need to be actively supporting local adaptation of food plants and animals for climate change. We need to know where our food is coming from, and how it is grown.

Your support for local farmers is key to their ability to keep on doing this important global work.

Everyone has to eat and that means there is always a source of local food somewhere.

Try going to a farmer’s market, finding a local farm that sells directly to consumers, or even reading labels at the grocery store to ensure you are buying local (or even provincial/state) foods over imports.

You could even try growing your own (yes — even apartment dwellers can grow food! Stay tuned for how).

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It matters what you buy. It matters who you buy it from.

If small farmers cannot generate money to feed their stock, and pay their bills, then we lose this amazing climate change adaptation strategy. We also lose the very genetic variation that might hold the answer to surviving drought or disease or temperature changes.

Every small action counts towards changing our climate fates. Learn more about heritage breeds and heirloom plants. And enjoy the sweet richness of food produced right where you live! You’ll be glad you did.

Every small step in the right direction counts.

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Sue Senger

Written by

PhD (Biology), MSc (Plant Science), Landscape ecologist, Freelance Writer, visit:; Small-scale farmer, visit:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Sue Senger

Written by

PhD (Biology), MSc (Plant Science), Landscape ecologist, Freelance Writer, visit:; Small-scale farmer, visit:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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