Biological Meltdown: The Loss of Agricultural Biodiversity

Soon after peasant farmers first led plant explorers to wild stands of Zea diploperennis (perennial maize) in Mexico's Sierra de Manantlan in the late 1970s, plant breeders hailed the discovery as one of the botanical finds of the century. The rare perennial maize proved to be resistant to seven viral diseases that plague domesticated maize, and scientists predicted that Zea diploperennis could be worth as much as $4.4 billion to the commercial maize (corn) industry. Conservationists called for the establishment of a nature preserve to protect the rare maize in its natural habitat because they feared that poor farmers living nearby, in constant need of grazing land for their cattle, would soon wipe out the few remaining patches of wild maize by grazing cattle in the area. A nature preserve was eventually established, and peasant farmers no longer threatened the rare diploperennis. But within a few years, the forest began to invade the fields of wild maize. The plants were crowded out and began to disappear. Scientists soon realized that the local farmers had been intentionally conserving the wild maize by using a traditional practice of grazing their animals on dry fodder during the dormant season. Local farmers controlled the growth of the surrounding forest without harming the rare perennial maize plants. Retired vice-president for research at Pioneer Hi-Bred (the world's largest seed company), Donald Duvick, respectfully observes, "It seems that the farmers knew exactly what they were doing, and had more wisdom than the well-meaning environmental scientists."

This story illustrates not only the tremendous value of rapidly disappearing crop genetic diversity, but also the fact that it is impossible to talk about the conservation of species and ecosystems separate from farm communities and indigenous peoples. The world's main food and livestock species have their centers of genetic diversity in the South. Generations of farmers in the tropics and sub-tropics have consciously selected and improved plants and animals that are uniquely adapted to thousands of micro-environments. Today, farming communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are the primary custodians of most of the earth's remaining agricultural biodiversity. They are also carriers of unique knowledge about genetic resources and entire ecosystems.

Agricultural biodiversity refers to that part of biodiversity that feeds and nurtures people--whether it is derived from the genetic resources of plants, animals, fish or forests. We are losing genetic resources for food and agriculture at an unprecedented rate. It can best be described as a biological meltdown. The statistics are numbing:

Crop genetic resources are being wiped out at the rate of 1-2% every year. Since the beginning of this century, about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost.

Livestock breeds are disappearing at an annual rate of 5%, or 6 breeds per month. In Europe, half of all breeds of domestic animals that existed at the turn of the century have become extinct, and 43% of the remaining breeds are endangered.

Tropical forests are falling at a rate of just under 1% per annum, or 29 hectares per minute. From 1980-1990, this is equivalent to an area the size of Ecuador and Peru combined.

Marine fisheries are collapsing. About 70% of the world's conventional marine species are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or in the process of recovering from overfishing. One-fifth of all freshwater fish are already extinct or endangered.

Whether in farmers' fields, forests, or fisheries, the genetic variation needed to meet human food needs is slipping into oblivion. Equally alarming, genetic resources are being privatized and their natural habitats plundered. We are losing the biological options we need to strengthen food security and to survive global climate change. The consequences, warns the United Nations, are "serious, irreversible and global."

Erosion of crop and animal diversity threatens the existence and stability of our global food supply because genetic diversity (found primarily in the South) is vital for the maintenance and improvement of agriculture. To maintain pest and disease resistance in our major food crops, for instance, or to develop other needed traits like drought tolerance or improved flavor, plant breeders constantly require fresh infusions of genes from the farms, fields and forests of the South. But agricultural biodiversity is not just a raw material for industrial agriculture; it is also the key to food security and sustainable agriculture because it enables poor farmers to adapt crops and animals to their own ecological needs and cultural traditions. Without this diversity, options for long-term sustainability and agricultural self reliance are lost.

Why Are We Losing Agricultural Biodiversity?

The greatest factor contributing to the loss of crop and livestock genetic diversity is the spread of industrial agriculture and the displacement of more diverse, traditional agricultural systems. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat to the developing world, replacing thousands of farmers' traditional crop varieties and their wild relatives on a massive scale. The same process continues today. New, uniform plant varieties are replacing farmer's traditional varieties - and the traditional ones are becoming extinct.

In the United States, more than 7000 apple varieties were grown in the last century. Today, over 85 percent of those varieties - more than 6000 - are extinct. Just two apple varieties account for more than 50% of the entire US crop. In the Philippines, where small farmers once cultivated thousands of traditional rice varieties, just two Green Revolution varieties occupied 98% of the entire rice growing area in the mid-1980s.

Industrial agriculture requires genetic uniformity. Vast areas are typically planted to a single, high-yielding variety or a handful of genetically similar cultivars using capital intensive inputs like irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides to maximize production. A uniform crop is a breeding ground for disaster because it is more vulnerable to epidemics of pests and diseases.

The same is true with livestock genetic resources. The introduction of "modern" breeds that are selected solely for maximizing industrial production has displaced or diluted indigenous livestock breeds worldwide.

The commercial white turkey that is mass-produced on factory farms in Europe and North America has been bred for such a meaty breast that it is no longer able to breed on its own! This broad-breasted breed - which accounts for 99% of all turkeys in the United States today - would become extinct in one generation without human assistance in the form of artificial insemination.

The spread of industrial agriculture in the South places thousands of native breeds at risk. In India, just 3 decades after the introduction of so-called "modern" livestock breeds, an estimated 50% of indigenous goat breeds, 20% of indigenous cattle breeds, and 30% of indigenous sheep breeds are in danger of disappearing.

Though frequently characterized as "resource poor," many of the South's farming communities are extraordinarily rich in plant and animal genetic diversity and in traditional knowledge. But these are endangered resources. With the drive for export monoculture and the spread of Green Revolution technology in the South, the dominant model for agricultural production has been based on external inputs--imported genetic stock, technology and the ideas of outside "experts." Ironically, the Green Revolution approach (high-input, high-tech, and high-yielding crop and livestock breeds) has proved so "successful" that it has very nearly extinguished the farming communities' most vital "internal" resources - farmers' traditional knowledge and the rich reservoirs of plant and animal genetic diversity that they have selected and improved for generations. The erosion of traditional knowledge and agricultural diversity not only marginalizes the South's food producers and farming communities, it jeopardizes world food security for all.

The "Gene" Revolution

At the United Nations' World Food Summit in November 1996, governments of the world underscored the importance of trade liberalization to food security and implicitly endorsed a growing reliance on capital-intensive, high-technology agricultural production. Export agriculture was held up as the answer to food security, while food self-reliance was ignored. Side-stepping the more important issues of structural reforms (such as access to food and redistribution of land and resources), the familiar response of international agricultural research institutions is to recycle the Green Revolution and boost it with a heavy dose of biotechnology. Not surprisingly, commercial biotechnology does not address the needs of peasant farmers in marginal farming areas of the South, and has little to do with feeding hungry people. Globally, agricultural biotechnology is controlled by a handful of seed, agrochemical and pharmaceutical corporations whose proprietary products are designed primarily to meet the needs of Northern industry. It's a high-stakes game, and few enterprises can afford to compete. Consider, for example, that Monsanto spent no less than $100 million developing its herbicide tolerant soybean (a soybean that can withstand spraying of Monsanto's bestselling weed killer). DNA Plant Technology spent over $6.3 million defending its biotech patents on longer shelf-life tomatoes. Pioneer Hi-Bred claims that one of its new, genetically-engineered maize varieties requires access to 38 different patent claims involving 16 separate patent holders.

Proprietary technologies are seldom accessible or affordable to customers in the South. In India, for example, where 70% of pesticides are used on cotton and rice, researchers were anxious to develop genetically engineered crop varieties containing genetic resistance to the insects that harm them. US-based Monsanto corporation reportedly offered to sell its patented, insect-resistant gene to the Indian government for $7.74 million. The cost was too high, and the Indian government was forced to reject the deal.

Have we learned from the mistakes of the Green Revolution? It appears not. There is little doubt that the 21st century's "gene revolution" can and will be used to promote industrial monocultures and genetic uniformity on a massive scale. A new tree cloning venture in Indonesia (owned by a US and Australian firm) illustrates how biodiversity could be diminished and job opportunities restricted by a high-tech forestry initiative. The company claims that it has the capacity to produce 10 million genetically uniform teak and eucalyptus seedlings per year using a robotic assembly line that operates around the clock with a single human attendant. Historically, when industrial tree plantations are based on uniform, introduced species, the native biodiversity is inevitably lost. Similarly, new breakthroughs in the cloning of mammals will someday allow researchers to manipulate a test tube full of embryonic cells to produce scores of genetically identical livestock.

Farmer-Led Food Security

Ultimately, farming communities hold the key to conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, and to food security for millions of the world's poor. They are the innovators best suited to develop new technologies and management to their diverse ecosystems. If international aid and development institutions dismiss peasant farmers, exclude structural reforms, and ignore the indigenous crops and livestock breeds that poor farmers depend upon for survival, then they fail to address actual hunger. At the Science ' Academies Summit held in India in July 1996, several African scientists expressed their frustration with foreign ideas for introducing high-tech agriculture in the South, noting that traditional African crops are ignored or undervalued in international agricultural research. "I don't want a Green Revolution," said Iba Kone of the African Academy of Sciences, "I want a Black Revolution. I want to return to our indigenous crops."

Similarly, the common approach of importing industrial animal breeds to boost productivity of livestock in the South is now being rethought, in recognition of the fact that native breeds are far more likely to be productive under low-input conditions. "In 80% of the world's rural areas the locally adapted genetic resources are superior to common modern breeds," concludes Keith Hammond, the U.N. Food and Agriculture's expert on animal genetics. For poor farmers, an animal's most essential quality is not its rate of growth or yield of milk, but its basic ability to survive and reproduce, which in turn ensures the family's self-reliance and survival.

In the long run, the conservation of plant and animal genetic diversity depends not so much on the small number of institutional breeders in the formal sector (governments, university and industry), but on the vast number of traditional farmers who select, improve and use plant and livestock diversity, especially in marginal farming environments. The challenge for the world community is to link conservation and development by enabling farm communities to assume a major role in managing and benefiting from the genetic resources on which their livelihoods depend.

Ultimately, we cannot save the world's biological diversity unless we also nurture the human diversity that protects and develops it. If we undervalue or ignore the traditional knowledge of farmers and rural people who use and manage biodiversity as the basis for their livelihoods, we lose our last, best hope for salvaging and developing the living resources upon which we all depend.

Related stories: