An Insurance Policy for Climate Change? How Seed Banks Are Protecting the Future of Food

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This post first appeared at Truthout.

By now, most Americans know that the world’s rainforests are being cut down at an alarming rate, coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification and warming and the sea is being overfished to the point of exhaustion. We are in the midst of an unprecedented collapse of biodiversity, the largest extinction event since the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth 65 million years ago.

It is essential that we preserve the remaining crop varieties that we still have.

But fewer people have heard about another ongoing mass extinction that involves the foods that we eat. More than 75 percent of the fruit and vegetable varieties that humans once consumed have already gone the way of the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. And half of all domesticated animal breeds have been lost in roughly the past century.

Apple historian Dan Bussey says that of the 20,000 named apple varieties that have been cultivated in North America, only 4,000 remain. Thousands of varieties of rice once flourished in the Philippines. Today, less than 100 varieties survive. And similar numbers could be cited for virtually all of our food crops.

This massive loss of diversity is — you guessed it — the result of the rapid spread of industrial agriculture and the increasing standardization of the food industry, where unconventional varieties have been squeezed off of supermarket shelves.

A third of the world’s land area is dedicated to agriculture. Farmers’ fields and pastures comprise (after the oceans) the second largest ecosystem on the planet. This vast tract has been largely transformed into sterile monocultural deserts in which all other organisms are suppressed with agrochemicals, and only the cash crop is allowed to thrive. Whether it is soy in the Brazilian Amazon, wheat on the Ukrainian steppes or corn in Iowa, a single high-yield variety typically dominates the landscape for as far as the eye can see.

It is a system that has proven to be fabulously efficient and productive. But this productivity has come at a cost: Once rich soils are quickly being “burned” by the continual application of petroleum-based fertilizers; fresh water aquifers are pumped dangerously low for irrigation; streams are poisoned with herbicides and pesticides and vast dead zones fan out from river deltas like the Mississippi, which drain toxic agricultural residues far out into the sea.

An insurance policy for climate change

But even apart from this ecological damage, some agronomists question the wisdom of planting only one crop. If the single seed variety that everyone is sowing turns out to be unsuited to future climactic conditions, or lacks resistance to insect and crop diseases which are going to be increasingly on the move into new areas as climate change advances, then we will be out of luck. We won’t have the genetic diversity on hand to breed new, resilient varieties that can withstand the rigors of a climate-changed world.

The roughly 1,750 other seed banks worldwide are functioning as a kind of Noah’s ark.

That’s one reason that it is essential that we preserve the remaining crop varieties that we still have, says John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, the largest US organization dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. “While not every traditional variety tastes great or looks great, its genetics may be invaluable 50 or 100 years from now when the climate is different,” Torgrimson told Truthout.

“There are qualities in varieties that we don’t even know about,” he said. “It might be resistant to a particular disease; it may grow well in a particular region; it may have certain traits that will allow us to deal with climactic conditions going forward. Diversity is an insurance policy.”

But it is an insurance policy that has become increasingly hard to come by. In earlier times, farmers saved their own seeds in the fall for replanting in the spring. In the 1930s, a scant 0.5 percent of farmers planted store-bought hybrid seeds, according to Torgrimson. Today, that number has soared to over 90 percent. “Big companies, like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont, are pretty much driving what farmers are growing,” he said. In some cases, farmers are actually forbidden by contract to collect the “patented seeds” from their own harvest for replanting next year.

The end result is that the incredible agricultural creativity demonstrated by farmers painstakingly breeding ever-new varieties of fruits, grains and vegetables over hundreds of generations has now effectively ground to a halt in the United States and much of the developed world, replaced by a small cadre of crop scientists creating commercial varieties in high-tech labs and experimental plots for sale by multinational corporations.

The new Noah’s Ark

In the face of this growing consolidation, groups like Seed Savers and the roughly 1,750 other seed banks worldwide are functioning as a kind of Noah’s ark to preserve crucial genetic diversity during our current flood of monoculture and high-tech industrial seeds. One organization that is working regionally to preserve the United States’ agricultural legacy is Native Seeds Search, based in Tucson, Arizona, which collects traditional drought-tolerant varieties of corn, wheat, beans and squash (called landraces) for use locally and in other arid areas around the world.

Technology has largely transformed modern farming into an assembly line operation.

The group’s former director, Bill McDorman, told Truthout that they aren’t just saving the seeds; they are also gathering tribal stories about how to grow them, when to plant, how to tend the plants and how to store the harvest.

“There are fields where Hopi blue corn has been grown successfully every year for the past 60 years, with no external inputs, no fertilizer; they never watered it; that’s what they have learned to do over a thousand years, so for us just to take a few of those kernels and say, there are some genes in there that we can use, misses the point,” he said.

These genetic resources, McDorman says, need to be used to seed a new kind of farming modeled on the successful place-based agricultural systems of the past.

“The Hopi elders tell us to share, share, share, get this stuff back out and into a vibrant regional agriculture; that’s the real way to save them,” he said. “In an era when 10 companies own 87 percent of all seed [varieties], it’s time for the rest of us to find what’s left and use that to start our own agriculture based on our own seed-saving.”

Recently Monsanto approached Native Seeds Search to buy rare teocinte seeds, the wild ancestor from which our present-day corn was bred. Modern plant breeders are keen to acquire the hardy forebears of crops, which contain genes that are suited to harsh conditions in the wild. By crossbreeding these resilient weeds with their far less hardy domesticated cousins, breeders hope to produce new varieties that will be suited for survival in a tougher future.

Native Seeds Search “politely turned Monsanto down,” said McDorman, fearing perhaps that the agricultural giant might attempt to patent the teocinte and claim it as its own exclusive “intellectual property.” The group stamps the words, “These seeds are not to be used for commercial development with a patent outcome,” on all of the packets that they sell.

There is little effort to develop locally adapted crop varieties, whose sale would be too modest to interest big agriculture.

To date, Native Seeds Search has preserved 2,000 unique landraces native to the American Southwest. Even more ambitious in scale and global reach is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a facility tunneled under a mountain on the island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic, which stores over 783,000 different crop seeds from all corners of the earth. Svalbard founder Cary Fowler conceived of the frozen repository as a backup for regional seed banks worldwide, one place shielded from natural and human disasters where all of the world’s remaining varieties could be securely stored.

Seed banks in trouble

Svalbard came none too soon. The rice seed bank in the Philippines was recently destroyed by fire. Afghanistan’s gene bank, which contained hundreds of unique breeds of apricot, almond, melons and plums, was ransacked during the fall of the Taliban. Iraq’s seed facility located in the town of Abu Ghraib was looted and destroyed during the insurgency against US forces.

Last April, the seed bank in the ruined city of Aleppo, Syria — the very region where agriculture is believed to have started 10,000 years ago — shipped its entire collection of barley, fava bean and lentil seeds, along with ancient races of durum and bread wheat, to Norway for safekeeping.

Fowler told Truthout that most other regional seed banks around the world are not faring much better. “If you look at these seed banks, what you see is not a pretty picture. There are virtually none that operate on a secure, multiyear budget,” he said. “Many lack backup cooling systems for when the electricity fails. There is a slow drip, drip of extinction as germination rates decline. That’s just not the way to manage a resource that you may need not just next year, but 50 years from now.”

“They have to get these seeds into the hands of farmers.”

But the biggest problem, Fowler says, is that these facilities have never conducted a genetic inventory of their own collections. He compares it to having a library, but no card catalog to help locate what you are looking for on the shelves. We need a massive research push, he says, to study the traits contained in seeds and ultimately to make use of them in developing new varieties that are suited to future climactic conditions.

Agricultural research budgets slashed

But who is going to pay for this? In the past, government sponsored agricultural research, often through the network of state-run land grant agricultural colleges, which bred seeds and developed farming techniques suited to their own regions. These programs, however, have been decimated in recent years.

“The University of Arizona even as late as the ’60s had a state of the art center to study agriculture here in Arizona and produce new varieties for the desert,” said McDorman, the director of Native Seeds Search. “Their funding to do that has been cut every year for the last 17 years. They are down to $5,000 annually to do research on local varieties. Their 1,700-acre state-of-the-art farm was recently leased out to Monsanto to do research on genetically modified cotton for use in North Africa. Why? Because the only money for research nowadays comes from large industry.”

It’s not just state agricultural programs that are being gutted. The same cuts are happening at the federal level as well, according to Fowler. “In the late 1800s, the federal government — we didn’t have a tea party then! — was sending out 20 million boxes of seeds to farmers for experimentation purpose, and this is how we came to have crops that were adapted to all of the ecological niches in this country,” he said.

Nowadays, by contrast, with government effectively out of the research business, there is little effort to develop locally adapted crop varieties, whose sale would be too modest to interest big agriculture. In fact, for many of the fruits and vegetables that we depend on, there is virtually no research at all. “The private sector is focused on a handful of major seed crops [soy, wheat and corn],” Fowler said. “So they are not putting major efforts into quote unquote ‘minor crops,’ which may be minor for them economically, but major crops for the rest of us nutritionally.”

To date, Native Seeds Search has preserved 2,000 unique landraces.

This research gap is especially acute in poorer countries. “What is going to convince big seed companies to put in the investment to produce varieties adapted to ecological niches in Africa when people there can’t even afford to buy the seed?” Fowler said.

His solution: “National seed banks around the world should figure out which traits and seed will be needed [to adapt to changing conditions] and distribute them,” he said. “They have to get these seeds into the hands of farmers and empower them to be the breeders and developers that underdeveloped countries lack because they don’t have a big and viable commercial research sector. They’ll do it. Farmers like to experiment, to try something new; they love that.”

Potato Park

One such farmer-based project is Parque de la Papa or Potato Park, a 22,000-acre, farmer-led potato preserve located in Cusco Valley in the Peruvian Andes where six Quechua communities have banded together to grow more than 600 native breeds, which come in all shapes, sizes and colors, from purple to yellow and red, in the region where potato cultivation began.

Climate change has been warming the Andes, where temperature rises have been documented since the 1950s, forcing farmers to grow their cold-loving varieties at ever higher altitudes. “Farmers in difficult environments such as mountains and drylands are at the front line of climate change,” Krystyna Swiderska, an agricultural specialist at the International Institute for Environment and Development, told Truthout. “They are already experiencing the impacts of climate change and are having to develop ways to adapt.”

In earlier times, farmers saved their own seeds in the fall for replanting in the spring.

During the insurgency of the terror group Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s and ’90s, many highlanders sought refuge in urban areas, abandoning their farms and imperiling many potato varieties, some of which were planted on only a handful of fields and were lost. Fortunately, many other breeds had been preserved by the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, which distributed them to farmers after the insurgency ended in 2000.

When the great potato famine led to the starvation of a million people in Ireland during the mid-1800s, most of the potatoes grown on the island were of a single variety, the Irish Lumper, which was susceptible to the blight. In stark contrast, Andean farmers plant a wide diversity of varieties. CIP director Barbara Wells compares it to “modern investors in the stock market, who diversify their investment portfolios to deal with the risk and volatility in the stock market.”

“I plant about 250 varieties of potato,” said farmer Lino Mamani, of the Potato Park. “Planting a diversity of potatoes is vital for food security — it means we will always have food. This practice comes from our ancestors.”

A diverse future

In the past, farmers’ traditional knowledge was largely ignored by agricultural scientists, and viewed as unscientific and untested. Nowadays, there is a growing respect for what they know.

“We view farmers as researchers,” said CIP scientist Stef de Haan. “They are continually innovating and are probably ahead of the curve when it comes to adaptation since they are in the field identifying problems and evaluating options.”

Swiderska, the agricultural specialist, agrees that farmers are some of our best guides to adapting agriculture to a climate-changed future. “Traditional knowledge is holistic, focusing on the interconnections between different parts [soils, water, biodiversity, culture] and on complexity of systems, rather than reductionist like science. It is a different type of knowledge, but just as important,” she said.

Technology has largely transformed modern farming into an assembly line operation, in which farmers have left decisions about which seeds to plant and what pesticides and fertilizers to apply to the big agricultural corporations that supply them.

But now, with climate change disrupting regional agriculture around the world in very different ways, some farmers want to take back the control they had relinquished to big agriculture. They are hoping that, with the help of the incredible seed wealth developed by their ancestors over countless generations, they can continue to feed themselves — and us — in the uncertain years ahead.

This story is part of the Climate in Our Hands collaboration between Truthout and YES! Magazine.

Richard Schiffman is the author of two biographies as well as a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post, and on NPR and Monitor Radio.
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