In a country that is more worried about losing weight than about how it’s going to put food the table we’re seldom concerned about where our next meal is coming from. The same isn’t true for nearly two billion people in many areas of the world.
When our species moved from being hunter gathers to farmers we used the new source of energy provided by farming to increase our population and improve the way we lived. Our tacit assumption was that there would allows be enough food to go around. When shortages developed we used selective breeding on our meat animals to increase the yield. On the vegetable crops there was cross breeding and the development of hybrid plants. All of these techniques coupled with the application of large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides pushed the yield ever higher to feed an increasing population.
This has resulted to the expansion of our species across the entire face of the planet. Now that our population is going to reach the seven billion people this year we find that the large majority of our food comes from the application of the same methods. Only seven grain crops across the world account for the vast majority of our daily calorie consumption. These crops include corn, rice, wheat and sorghum. Most of these crops have been cross bred and hybridized to increase their yield and as a result use more oil to enhance and protect them in the form of petrochemical products. When the diversity of a crop species is decreased it becomes more at risk to disease and climate change. As an example, if the crop xyz has over 50 species and over two centuries we reduce that to five the diversity of that species has been decreased and thus made susceptible to large yield reductions by disease, war, economics and/or climate effects. Skeptics might say that this is only a hypothetical scenario but it has happened many times before. One example is the potato. The potato was affected by a blight, which caused the Irish potato famine. In 1845 the fungus Phytophthora infestans arrived accidentally in Ireland from North America. A slight variation in climate at that time brought warm wet weather to Ireland, which the blight thrived on. Much of the Irish potato crop at that time was made up of only two species and these rotted in the fields. More than a million Irish citizens, about one of every nine, died of starvation or disease in the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
The future of humanities’ food has promise through the science of genetic engineering and mariculture as long as we remember that diversity is survival and that it’s better to be a generalist than a specialist in changing times.
Think Global – Act Local!