Saturday, 11 May 2013 21:41

Sowing the seeds of our own destruction

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The recent pronouncement by climatologists that, at four-hundred parts per million and rising, atmospheric carbon dioxide is at a level not experienced in three-million years is disturbing if not alarming.  It should result in galvanic response across the globe to begin extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than just slowing down the emissions we are shoving into it.  We all know what the likelihood of that is going to be.  In any event, this—possibly calamitous—situation may only serve to exacerbate an earlier mistake we made; and it may already be too late to save our fast-sinking ship.  Here is what worries me:

Sowers of their own destruction

Have we already sealed our fate by something we never saw coming?

Death by starvation does not seem to be a pleasant death at all, yet there are many on our planet facing that slow and miserable demise even today while there exists a near glut of food available to us.  What is worse is that all of us may likely face a similar fate rather soon.  Not in several centuries hence but most probably in decades hence.

Global warming is happening if not clearly understood and we cannot escape its consequences.  The world, our planet, is in transition and it is happening so fast that consequence will be profound and certain.  And the greatest certainty is that we shall quickly run out of food as our population soars towards nine billion souls and beyond in less than a generation.  It is not that we cannot grow enough food to meet our needs it is that we will not have the food plants that will enable us to grow the grain for our daily bread nor the available space in which to grow them.

All life on this planet has specific and narrow requirements for growth.  Too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry and crops fail.  We see this happening already in our grain belts.  Australian wheat farmers were hit by drought for several years and when rains came, they arrived in too much abundance or at the wrong time in the growing to harvest season.  This is mirrored throughout the wheat belts of the world.  Science can give us grain that is drought tolerant or cold tolerant or that will fight off mould and rusts but all that will take time that we simply no longer have.  Moreover, our weather will become unpredictable as well.  We may well have days of excessive heat followed by sudden cold snaps and deluges of rain punctuated by weeks of drought.  All of this is predicted by our weather scientists and is already happening today, a consequence of our being a world in transition.  Where shall we find plants that will produce bumper crops despite these see-sawing conditions?  We cannot, and if we could, they would rapidly become noxious weeds to thwart our efforts at growing other crops needed for our diet.  They would, in fact, become doomsday plants.  They would grow with such prolificacy that natural selection would soon favour those that defied grazers and browsers and those traits would rapidly be transmitted to our regulated cropping.   And do not forget, we too are browsers.

Tornado Alley in the US is moving further north and outside of its plot with each La Niña event.  It is expected that the new super storms will eventually bring tornadoes as far north as Chicago.  These changes to our climate will not only affect our weather but what happens as a result of the weather changes.  Conditions existing today that will not allow for pestilence or plague are also in a state of flux.  We can expect to see new animals turning up to eat our crops that would not have been comfortable in our climate in the past.  There will be new soil-borne diseases and problems that were not a problem before; and insects beneficial—and even necessary—to our crops may find the climate no longer to their liking.  These are not the visitations of an angry god; simply climate change, but it means that we will not be able to grow the foods we need in order to survive or in the abundance that we need to keep ourselves fed as our population burgeons.

This is not a problem that we shall face in the future, it is the problem that we face today and we began sowing the seeds to that problem only yesterday.  And it is now that we are beginning to see the depth and width of the disaster.  It is cropping up everywhere and has been doing so for a rather long while now but no one saw it coming, no one predicted it, no one made the connection and there may not be enough time left to correct it.

Farms were at one time engines of self-sufficiency.  However, the need to supply urban development with food led to massive changes of technique.  Farms and farmers became specialists, giving birth to the concept of monoculture.  The markets were there, so the sale of the harvest was assured and the cities could grow larger in the certain expectation of always having an abundance of food available at the local markets.  It was only one or two small steps to smarter farming with chemical additions to the soil and to the selection of plants that promised bumper yields.  It worked rather spectacularly and the focus on farming with all of our crops was to focus on one species or variety of an organism and, by consequence, with only one set of desirable genes.  Marketing problems further reduced the number of plant specimens; e.g. fruit varieties with an extremely short shelf-life were abandoned in preference to others that would not begin to rot quite as quickly.  Any product that was consumed by more people than could be supplied by the growers quickly became the next targeted market crop of the future, using, of course, only those plants that did well in similar conditions.  It was inevitable we would begin sowing the wrong seeds.

Apples originated somewhere in a valley in the region of Afghanistan.  Their seeds were carried farther and farther away from their origins as tribes expanded or migrated.  Each seed in each apple is different in exactly the same way that brothers and sisters differ from each other.  As the apple seeds were planted and fruit-producing trees matured four or five years later, each of these trees produced fruits that were different in some way.  Many of the differences were not readily seen or tasted but they were there nonetheless.  Apples with desirable traits were kept and planted until that particular variety became more or less stable.  Though there are now some seventy-five hundred varieties grown worldwide, the numbers in each developed country are likely to be only a couple of thousand and of those only about a hundred are grown commercially.  Desirable apples are no longer planted by sowing of seed.  The investment of time, only to discover that the crop may differ sufficiently to be not readily marketable, is too great to be left to chance.  Trees are now cultivated by cuttings or graft and planted out when they are only a year or two away from cropping.  The problem is that as climate conditions change, these singular plants lack the ability and the time to change with those conditions.  They will simply fall over.  It is the same with all of our food.  We have, for want of a better cliché or metaphor, been putting all of our eggs in the one basket and we now are faced with the inevitable disaster.

Western populations have been experiencing health problems in proportions never before seen.  Our children develop allergies and seeming disorders at an alarming rate.  We even have a looming problem of obesity with all of the dangers to our health that brings.  Medical scientists cannot pinpoint the problem while certain groups claim a myriad of reasons, none provable and some bordering on ridiculous.  There must, however, be one single underlying cause.  Moreover, if the problem is less prevalent in undeveloped countries, as it seems to be, then it must be the result of something more prevalent in western society.  It can only be, rationally, something to do with our lifestyle.  And the only commonality in our lifestyle is the food we eat.  Nutritionists and medical science have already concluded the problem likely lies with our diet.  Hence we have dire warnings about fatty foods, empty calories, junk foods, additives, preservatives and chemicals identified by numbers rather than by names.  Yet, there are significant groups of people who suffer the ills of the modern world but shun any of those no-no foods, so, clearly, that is not the single underlying factor.

Not only did some of our significant fruits originate in Asia, so did our grains and many leguminous plants.  These were wild plants found growing wherever conditions permitted.  The plants growing in conditions suitable to human habitation were cultivated for us and for our livestock.  However, the history of our planet being one of profound change suited one plant one year but did not necessarily suit another of the same variety or species.  As consequence, we tended to have cultivated and grown several varieties and species all at the same time.  Some years, some varieties yielded massive crops relative to other varieties grown in the same field or plot.  It may well change the following year and the farmers simply took what nature provided.  The seeds they saved to be sown the following season were, for the most part, unselective and so almost all of the available varieties, together with the new lottery of jumbled genes, had their chance in the sun.

Catastrophes happen.  They have happened before and it is to be expected that they will happen in the future.  Some catastrophes are global.  A huge volcanic explosion, a meteor slamming into earth, a tilt to the earth’s axis could decimate the animal population on earth, and that includes us, but worse, it could leave us without even our meagre number of food plants with which to feed ourselves and the consequent conditions of such catastrophe may not allow them to be grown anywhere on earth for decades.  We are undergoing just such a catastrophe today with global warming.  Fortunately it is not as immediate as a wayward meteor or the belching of sulphuric acid from an emergent volcano and in that we must think of ourselves as being very lucky.  Many people have foreseen this scenario and have begun preparations to get us out of trouble.  Almost all developed nations have some sort of national gene bank to store seeds from all of our food plants and other botanical specimens we might need in the future for our own survival.  We may all someday be indebted to the individuals who were the prime motivators of such schemes, and we may someday owe our very existence to the people of Norway who built for the world a seed bank to hold duplicates of the seeds held in all the seed banks just in case the catastrophic disaster we fear wipes those out as well.  It is an ongoing mission designed not solely for the doomsday scenario but to hold safe the genes of plants that may be destroyed in common disaster or war.  The cost of these efforts of maintaining and operating the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is met, for the most part, by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.  Seeds are sent there by developed and non-developed countries alike and among us are some heroes that spend their lives tracking down the wild seeds that were the progenitors of those in our modern day seed banks.

It is here where we begin to see how we have been sowing the seeds of our own destruction.  Humans need protein and the easiest recoverable source is other animals.  As the population soars, so does the need for land, and this means there is less land to accommodate our herds of domesticated animals used for consumption.  We not only have to feed ourselves, we have to feed them.  Arable land is also becoming scarce and we are burning down our forests that help provide us with our oxygen and that cleanse the atmosphere for us.  The diminishing land resource has forced us to devise and develop food crops that provide bumper yields.  It sounds good in theory but we have been making a terrible mistake, a mistake that could prove fatal.  Protein is also available from certain plants.  Chickpeas are one source that is very high in protein hence they have been well developed through cultivation over centuries.  If we are to keep true genetic diversity in our plants, we must go back to the source plants, the genesis.  A group of botanists began to source the wild varieties of wheat, other grains and, in particular, the wild chickpea in the area in which they were known to originate.   Our humanitarian efforts though, may have placed us all in a most precarious position.  The botanists found that even in very remote areas, the aid agencies had preceded them, offering the new high-yield grain.  It was a godsend to these villagers who had barely been able to scrape by over the generations.  But it was a brief godsend.  Climate conditions in these remote areas are harsh and unpredictable.  It takes only a few seasons for unselected crops to disappear to oblivion.  Why would you keep the seeds of a plant that was barely able to offer a harvest when a new variety that produced heavy heads was freely available?  So, the seeds of the ancient plants, no longer stored or sown, disappeared and the new seeds proved they could not cope with the changing and volatile climate.  The villagers were now almost worse off than before the help offered by the aid agencies.  The botanists found that the only grains available were modern ones as were the seeds of chickpeas and other valuable legumes.  It becomes a race in time.  We need to secure these genetically diverse original plants and all their natural cultivars if we are to have any hope of growing species or varieties of these plants in the future, and the future is today.

Cultural problems beset us and are far more difficult to overcome than any technical or scientific problem.  Our knowledge of genetics today and our skills with gene technology provide us with a tool to solve the problems associated with climate change disrupting our agriculture.  We are able to take genes that code for a desirable trait, such as the ability to fix nitrogen, from one species and transplant it to another.  This is rather simple and new cloning techniques allow us to produce millions of these plants in a single growing season.  However, culturally, there are several organisations devoting their resources and time to prohibiting such gene manipulation.  They fear we may accidentally create a Frankenstein monster.  Any such monster would also have to cope with changing climates and extremes of conditions so there should be very little fear there.  The result is that these genetic modifications are still being carried out, but by the more laborious, expensive and time consuming method of natural selection, a very primitive form of the exact same science.  And we may rapidly be running out of time to complete the task.

There are few people of an earlier generation who will tell you that tomatoes taste better today.  They will also tell you that when they were young every farm if not every house had apple trees and those apples looked, tasted or smelled differently from other apple trees even if of the same variety.  For the most part, each tree had been grown from seed and each individual seed was just that, an individual.  Some of the differing traits could not be seen, tasted or smelled but the effect of the genes controlling those traits had to be evident in some form or other.  Maybe this is where we have gone wrong.

Our daily bread is made from nearly identical seeds of whatever grain we use for our flour.  Nearly all the fruit we eat in the western world comes from cuttings from the original plant.  Our vegetables, even if grown in our own garden beds are from seeds whose genetic divergence has been restricted and most are from hybrid pollination to create a species that will not set viable seed.  Are we poisoning ourselves?  Have we been slowly poisoning ourselves over the last couple of generations?  Are we perhaps missing out on some vital ingredient that would have been present in some stunted or barely edible plants of the same variety that we have weeded out of the gene pool?  Perhaps, instead of planting seeds that were twinned one to the other, we should have been planting a variety of seeds in the same field in the same sowing.  Perhaps we should be using more heritage varieties of our food grains, fruits and vegetables, and sowing them in the same space at the same time.  It might, almost certainly, reduce the size of our harvest but it may well give our food the necessary vitality to cope with sudden and dramatic changes to our climate.  Moreover, by using our skills of gene manipulation, we should be able to insert desirable elements to our heritage crops without destroying either viability or adaptability of the parent plants.

If we have not been slowly poisoning ourselves with the global overuse of single-seed harvests in all of our prepared foods and in the food markets, limiting ourselves to a narrow genetic product, then we need to determine what effects this practice actually has.  Biodiversity is a rallying cry among many of those warning of planetary disasters if we continue with the practice of wide-scale monoculture.  Surely that must also apply to the seeds used in that monoculture.

Climate change can hardly be denied but the result or even the actual direction is open to interpretation.  It matters little for it has happened many times before and life has always survived.  Whether humankind will survive is, of course, another matter.  We need to be one step ahead in this game of forfeit and, in only a few years from now, it will be too late.

David Edwards

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