Diversity in the gene pool is shrinking at an alarming rate and could lead to what Robert Cowen, science editor of the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, says “could become a mass extinction of Earth’s plant and animal species.” Species extinction of both plants and animals has accelerated rapidly in the 20th century and has reached what many feel is a state of crisis. From 1600 to 1900, one species disappeared every four years; now perhaps 1,000 species become extinct each year. The Worldwatch Institute pamphlet on conserving the diversity of life, published in June 1987, predicts the extinction rate in 20 years will reach more than 100 species per day.
The loss of life forms is more than an aesthetic issue. The rapid extinction of food crop germplasm represents a disaster in the making. Unless the trend is slowed, mass famine on a global scale is a real possibility. The International Board for Plant Genetic Resources has issued warnings that the genetic diversity of many of the staple crops that feed the world such as wheat, rice, barley, millet, and sorghum is imperiled. 72% of the U.S. potato crop is concentrated in four genetic strains. Six varieties account for 71% of the corn crop. Of the cataloged vegetables grown in the U.S. in 1901/02, less than four percent still existed in 1985.
Genetic diversity is a prerequisite for agricultural success. Genetic uniformity makes crops vulnerable to environmental threats such as pests, blight, and drought. The Irish potato famine was the result of genetic uniformity. The U.S. lost 75% of its durum wheat crop in 1953/54 and 50% of its corn crop in 1970, both due to genetic uniformity.
The diminution of diversity has led to what some researchers call the global “seed wars.” As plant species disappear around the world, “access to, control over and preservation of plant genetic resources becomes a matter of international concern and conflict.” The vast majority of the world’s genetic resources is concentrated in the Third World. In order to prevent crop stains from inbreeding, the industrial nations resort to “germplasm appropriation,” a strategy for collecting plant genetic material from Third World countries. The fact that the “collection” is done without recompense further exacerbates tensions between industrial and developing nations.
The Plant Variety Protection Act legislation of 1970, which broadened the interpretation of U.S. patent laws to allow corporations to patent seed varieties, has accelerated the extinction rate of food crop germplasm. Germplasm appropriated from the Third World is sold back to developing countries in the form of hybridized, patented seed. Farmers in the world’s centers of diversity are planting genetically uniform crops more and more frequently, thus causing further loss of indigenous seed. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that two thirds of all Third World crops will be from uniform strains by the year 2000.
The disappearance of genetic diversity either by accident or design is a critical issue that has had little media coverage or public debate. Germplasm has not made headlines. There are no “Save the Barley” bumper-stickers. Yet every day, more and more of our precious food sources disappear forever.
UTNE READER, Jan/Feb 1988, “Conserving the Diversity of Life,” by Jeremiah Creedon, pp 15-16; MOTHER JONES, December 1982, “Seeds of Disaster,” by Mark Schapiro, pp 11-15, 36-37.