Reaping What We Sow
By Cary Fowler
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 14-18
American agriculture is imported. All the major food crops grown in North America originated elsewhere.
It is believed that agriculture began independently in Southwest and East Asia, Mesoamerica, and probably South America and Africa in prehistoric times and gradually spread to other lands (see Chart A). The different grains and vegetables as we know them did not exist, for their present form is the result of thousands of years of evolution and domestication.
The conscious planting and harvesting of plants for food over wide geographic areas helped create enormous natural, genetic diversity in crops. Some of the seeds of plants that had successfully survived the growing season were not eaten, but saved to be replanted the following year, thereby perpetuating their own characteristics. Thus, countless genetically distinct varieties of each crop developed in response to different ecological conditions and human needs. Natural defenses evolved to the different pests and diseases encountered in each locality.
Modern agriculture changed all that.
By the early 1950s, major efforts were underway at research centers supported by private and government sources to breed grains which would produce high yields when pumped full of fertilizers and water. Food crops, especially vegetables, were also bred to fit the demands of brutal harvesting machinery and the rigors of long-distance transportation. Taste and nutrition were forgotten, even scorned.
Modern agriculture needs predictability; therefore, plant breeders strive for uniformity. Plants are bred and inbred to develop the desired characteristics. The result has been the creation of new varieties that are extremely genetically limited.
These new varieties have quickly spread around the globe, replacing old, traditional varieties. “Suddenly in the 1970s,” writes Garrison Wilkes of the University of Massachusetts, “we are discovering Mexican farmers planting hybrid corn seed from a midwestern seed firm, Tibetan farmers planting barley from a Scandinavian plant breeding station, and Turkish farmers planting wheat from the Mexican wheat program.”
Seed companies, governments, and international aid agencies have gone into areas where traditional varieties predominate and promoted the new plants, often calling them “miracle varieties.” Convinced of the “superior” qualities of the new variety, the Third World farmer or peasant ceases to grow the traditional crop. Instead, leftover seeds of the traditional variety may be used as food for the family or their animals. In a moment’s time, thousands of years of crop development and seed selection become meaningless, as another variety becomes extinct.
As food crops become more uniform, so do cultures. Foods and crops are an important part of a people’s heritage; they perpetuate and enrich its customs. As food crops become more uniform, so do people. As traditional varieties become extinct, human cultures lose something very special and irreplaceable.
The Ultimate Gamble
Where thousands of varieties of wheat once grew, only a few can now be seen. When these traditional plant varieties are lost, their genetic material is lost forever. Herein lies the danger. Each variety of wheat, for example, is genetically unique. It contains genetic “material” not found in other varieties. If, because of genetic limitations which result from inbreeding, new varieties are no longer resistant to certain insects or diseases (conceivably even insects or diseases never before known to attack wheat), then real catastrophe could strike. Without existing seeds which carry specific genes conferring resistance, it may not be possible to breed resistance back into wheat, corn, or any other crop.
Serious problems result from lack of genetic diversity. We now know that the Irish potato famine of the 1840s was caused by such lack of diversity. The two or three varieties of potatoes introduced to Ireland had come from the five thousand plus varieties growing in the Peruvian Andes, original home of the potato. It took many years for the spores of the potato fungus–the black rot–to reach Ireland from South America. When it did, the results were catastrophic. The genetically vulnerable potatoes were wiped out. Although wealthy landlords still had traditional crops to export out of the country, the potato-dependent poor had nothing.
By the mid 1840s, two million Irish had died, two million more had emigrated and the remaining four million faced a bleak future.
In 1970, a corn blight struck in the U.S. Old, open” pollinated varieties were not affected, but most farmers were growing the new hybrid models–all of which were susceptible to the blight. Nearly fifteen percent of the nation’s crops was destroyed. In some Southern states where the corn smut found weather conditions favorable, the losses topped fifty percent.
A study the next year by the National Academy of Sciences showed that just six varieties of corn accounted for seventy one percent of the acreage planted. This same lack of diversity is seen in all the major crops in American agriculture. Could it happen again? Listen to what is being said:
The key lesson of 1970 (year of the corn blight) is that genetic uniformity is the basis of vulnerability to epidemics. The major question the Committee on Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops asked was, “How uniform genetically are other crops upon which the nation depends, and how vulnerable, therefore, are they to epidemics?” The answer is that most crops are impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable.
-National Academy of Sciences
The array of diseases that pose threats to wheat, rice, maize, and sorghum is formidable. Except for the case of the Irish potato when neither plant pathology nor genetics had been born, research teams have been able to move fast enough to salvage our crops from complete devastation. But, we are becoming more and more vulnerable and there is no assurance that we can always react in time.
-Dr. Jack Harlan
Professor of Plant Genetics
Department of Agronomy
University of Illinois
Thus far, as Dr. Harlan notes, scientists have been able to work fast enough to avoid major catastrophes. When new varieties have been discovered to be genetically vulnerable to pests or diseases, scientists have scurried to collect old varieties or even “wild relatives” in a search for genetic material that could be bred back in to confer resistance. In recent years, wild potatoes have been used to breed in protection against eight major pests. Wild tomatoes have similarly provided resistance to a few pests. But all over the world, the new varieties are rapidly replacing old varieties. The National Academy of Sciences states that centers of wheat diversity are being destroyed “at an alarming rate.”
New wheats and rices have washed over Asia and the Near East with remarkable speed. New rice varieties came to occupy over seventy million acres in Asia in less than a decade. In Turkey, many priceless relatives of cereal grains are now found only in graveyards and castle ruins. U.N. scientists now estimate that the, Near East, center of genetic diversity for many of our grains, will simply disappear before the turn of the century.
Much, if not most, of this genetic wipe out is occurring due to the replacement of old varieties with new ones. International trade in seeds–the sale of seeds developed in North America and Europe to peasant farmers using old varieties–is the biggest factor behind the problem.
Other factors are also involved. Tropical forests, which contain the majority of the world’s higher plant species (including valuable food crops and plants used for making modern drugs), are being decimated by agricultural expansion and reckless timbering. These forests are now disappearing at a rate of up to twenty-seven million acres a year.
Recently, a rush of mergers and corporate takeovers has hit the seed industry. Many old family-owned seed companies have been bought out by large multinational corporations. The petrochemical and drug industries–major producers of pesticides and fertilizers–have been especially active
(see Chart B). Their interest in the seed business raises three provocative questions. First, will corporations who are big producers of pesticides and fertilizers encourage their new seed company subsidiaries to breed plant varieties that require more or fewer pesticides and fertilizers? Second, will the acquisition of small seed companies by corporations who are active around the world tend to create international seed companies that will be better able to spread their new varieties to regions where old varieties still predominate? Will they therefore speed up the process of driving these old varieties out of existence? Finally, will the takeover of seed companies like Burpee by ITT bring slick, uninformative advertising to the seed business?
Patent That Plant!
As seeds have become big business, pressure has been put on governments around the world to insure high profits for the seed industry. Until recently plants were considered “public property.” One could own a “Big X” tomato, but one certainly could not prevent someone else from raising that variety of tomato and selling it or its seeds. The seed industry has been successfully challenging that custom and at their request many nations have established a system of patents for new plant varieties. Now companies are able to patent a form of life.
In the U.S., plant patenting laws were first passed in 1970. Controversial amendments expanding the scope of U.S. laws were passed by Congress and signed into law by President Carter in December, 1980, despite strong opposition. The Rural Advancement Fund/National Sharecroppers Fund spearheaded a nationwide campaign to oppose the amendments, arguing that they would encourage seed company takeovers, lead to higher seed prices and contribute to the replacement and ultimate extinction of many traditional vegetable varieties.
But the seed industry, a powerful appendage of multinational petrochemical and drug corporations, was not to be denied a victory for its special interest legislation.
In Europe, where patenting laws were first passed, thousands of traditional varieties (including the Big Boy tomato) are being literally outlawed. Common Market countries are phasing in a system which makes it illegal for seed companies to sell the seeds of the old varieties. The crime committed by the traditional varieties is that they compete with the new, patented varieties being offered by the big companies who are entering the seed business.
Dr. Erna Bennett, formerly of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, predicts that by the end of this decade, fully three-quarters of all the vegetable varieties now grown in Europe will be extinct!
One thing is certain. Patent laws make seed companies attractive investments for larger corporations. Shell Oil of Great Britain has bought fifty-six seed companies since passage of a patent law there would encourage takeovers in the seed industry. They need only look at what has happened in the U.S. for a preview.
Although big-time seed industry officials argue that patent laws will encourage research and development of new varieties and thus aid the public, it seems that precisely the opposite might happen. Scientists at some research centers have already noted the increasing reluctance of seed companies and other researchers to exchange information and resources.
Under existing plant patenting legislation, corporations get protective patents, royalties and vastly reduced competition. Farmers and gardeners are faced with illegal varieties, hybrids whose seeds cannot be saved and royalty fees they never had to pay for non-patented seeds. Plant patenting laws offer protection for corporate profits while further narrowing the genetic basis on which agriculture itself depends. Declaring certain varieties illegal and patenting others is a bizarre luxury we cannot afford.
The Seed Bank
All major crops without exception originated in that part of our globe we call the Third World. And it is in these areas where genetic diversity is greatest that conservation efforts are most important. For some years now primitive crop varieties and wild relatives of modern crops have been collected and brought back to industrialized countries for storage in refrigerated seed banks.
But these efforts are perennially crippled by anemic budgets. Expeditions to collect endangered wheat varieties in the Mideast are no one’s priority. Seed banks to store them in are poor competition for jet fighters in budget debates.
The U.N.-supported International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, the agency charged with coordinating the collection of crop genetic material and its storage in a system of some sixty seed banks, has an annual budget of only three million dollars. Collection of some crops like rubber and cocoa will be left to industry by necessity despite the fact that no international codes exist to guarantee access to such genetic material.
|Atlantic Richfield (USA)
|Clays-Luck/ Participex (France)
|Dalgety (Gr. Bri.)
|DeKalb Pfizer Genetics (USA)
|Diamond Shamrock (USA)
|Golden Acres Hybrid
|Grain Processors Corp.(USA)
|O. M. Scott
|Int’l Multifoods (USA)
|Kleinwanzlebener SAAT (W. Ger.)
|DeKalb Hybrid Wheat
|Occidental Petroleum (USA)
|Pioneer Hi-bred (USA)
|Reichold Chemicals (USA)
|Florida Feed Seed
|Southwide Inc. (USA)
|Cotton Seed Distributors
|Stauffer Chemicals (USA)
|Tate Lyle (Gr. Bri.)
|Seed Farm Supply
|United Hagie Hybrid