Entire Species of Food Crops Are Being Lost Forever

Philis Wood, Contributing Reporter

It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.  —David Attenborough

It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.  —David Attenborough

Seeds are the foundation of all life on earth, from vegetables and fruits to grain and livestock feed. Without seeds, human beings would have no food. More than 90 percent of our calorie intake derives from seeds. However, age-old traditional food crop varieties are disappearing at a startling rate. It is likely that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species right now are in danger of extinction. Over 90 percent of the crop varieties grown 100 years ago are estimated to be already gone forever.

Unless we save seeds, we cannot grow and sustain food crops. And without food crops, humans will die out. Of the 391,000 known plant species, more than 20,000 are edible. Since the development of today’s modern agriculture, only about 20 plant species now provide 90% of human food. It is no exaggeration to say that human survival now depends on just three species of plant: rice, wheat, and corn. 

Many of us either know an independent farmer or maybe even have one in the family. Any wise, old farmer will tell you that when you save seed, you aren’t dependent on seed stores or catalogs for your seed. By saving your own seeds, you control your seed. Therefore, you control your food supply. 

Seed banks are a preventative measure in case something goes wrong. They are created for the chance of natural disasters, nuclear fallout, and outbreaks of disease. It has been scientifically proven that the industrialization of agriculture has made food crops less genetically diverse, and therefore less able to adapt to even small environmental changes. Seed banks preserve genetic diversity. This ensures that plants which are adapted to different climates will not become extinct as the climate changes.

Worldwide, there are more than 1,000 seed banks. The best seed bank is Svalbard International Seed Vault. It is nicknamed the Doomsday Vault. It’s located on the side of a mountain in Norway. It is able to survive bombings, earthquakes and other disasters. It currently preserves 825,000 seed varieties. Even if the power goes out, the seed vault can keep the seeds viable for 25 years. In the US, there are 20 large seed banks. But some states and even communities also have created smaller seed banks, known as seed libraries.

Anyone can take seeds from produce and freeze them in a small bag for use later. This is important because the spread of genetically modified plants as well as climate change have raised issues about possible widespread food shortages. Seed banks ensure the conservation of local crops that are already adapted to a specific region or climate. This allows biologists to revive specific plant varieties in order to ensure agricultural stability.

How did we get the crops that we need to make our food in the world today? In the first place, all of our food crops are the product of years of natural evolution. But in the second place—food crops are a product of thousands of years of selection by farmers and scientists who breed plants. Early humans carefully chose the best wild plants with which to feed each other, and these people passed those plant varieties along to other people by saving and sharing seeds. Saving seeds and exchanging seeds with other farmers are traditional ways of fostering biodiversity. However, these traditional practices are now illegal for many plants that are patented or otherwise owned by a corporation. Not too long ago, our food crops were the best of the best. Today, the diverse cornucopia of the earth’s plant species is being ransacked as never before. 

Biologists have proven that biodiversity is diminished by pollution and the degradation of resources, the destruction of habitat, and the disruption of ecosystems.The single biggest threat to biodiversity is the corporate ownership of entire species of plants. Multinational agribusiness corporations consolidate the seed industry and maintain only the most profitable varieties, causing other varieties to die out and be lost to human history. However, whenever a species is lost, this irrevocably diminishes the genetic storehouse upon which all future crop improvement and adaptability depends.Therefore, biodiversity is vital to human survival.

Sustaining our food crops is directly linked to biodiversity. For example, in the 1970s, a ‘grassy-stunt virus’ devastated rice crops from Indonesia to India. This plant virus endangered the world’s single most vital food crop. Fortunately, a gene from a related plant—an Indian wild rice—was used to confer resistance to rice varieties that are now widely cultivated in over 11 million rice fields in Asia. The genes found in our common wealth of undomesticated plants can provide the key to the improved crops we will need in order to feed the earth’s people in the coming decades. 

To date, over two dozen state legislatures have passed “seed-preemption laws,” which prevent counties and cities from making their own rules on using seeds, including bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Critics argue that decisions about what can be grown should be local and democratic. 

Once a species goes extinct, it is lost forever. This loss of genetic diversity is known as “genetic erosion.” The main reason for genetic erosion today is the corporate ownership of plant species. The development, patenting, and aggressive marketing of new, highly uniform varieties has now resulted in the loss of many local varieties of plants that—until only very recently—were always cultivated by traditional farmers for thousands of years in human history. We can’t keep losing these traditional food varieties just because of corporate greed. Biodiversity must be fostered if people are to survive. 

Seed banks are a way to combat the loss of plant species. Seed banks are a crucial element of any viable plan for food security. Seed banks sustain and preserve plant genetic diversity. Saving seeds gives humans a common wealth of useful genes that are essential for developing improved varieties of food crops. 

Seed banks allow for faster recovery from an environmental or natural disaster that can strike in an instant. Every week, we hear about wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods. Such catastrophes can wipe out food crops overnight. Plants often have difficulty adapting to climate change and to invasive new pests and new plant diseases. Scientists who help plants adapt need access to broad genetic diversity. This is crucial. Biologists and farmers need access to a wide variety of genetic resources to help our food crops adapt to changing conditions. Traditional species must therefore be preserved in seed libraries and seed banks or else they will die out and be lost forever. 

All of this indicates why farmers should lobby for our state to update its laws to correspond with the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law (RUSSL). This law allows seed banks, seed libraries, and seed swaps. The saving and free sharing of seeds is so important that the US Patent office used to spend almost a third of its budget mailing out seed packets to farmers. Who knows? Your grandmother’s heirloom tomato seeds may someday prove to be the solution to saving an entire species.