In the face of today`s burgeoning loss of seed diversity, the need for a doubling in food production in the next fifty years and the threatened spread of deadly food fungus has instigated seed hunters to scour world markets in a desperate search for the last varieties of wheat, rice, barley, lentils and chickpeas.
Food diversity extinction is rampant. In the USA, 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice are now shrunk to a few hundred. China has lost perhaps 90 percent of wheat varieties. This former diversity was the result of more than 10,000 years of domestication.
Without seed diversity, climate change or plant disease can decimate the plants people depend on for food.
An example is the Irish potato famine. In the late 16th century, the potato was brought to Europe from its ancestral home in the Andes. In Ireland a variety known as Lumper became the dominant food crop. In 1845, spores of Phytophthora infestans caused a black rot in Lumper potatoes and resulted in widespread starvation.
The current loss of food diversity began in 1944 when a plant pathologist developed a hybrid high yield wheat plant resistant to stem rust. This hybrid helped India and Pakistan boost their wheat yields and staved off starvation. Hailed as a triumph, this innovation introduced industrialized agriculture with mono cropping and reliance on limited seed varieties.
But today, a half century later, a new and more virulent stem rust named UG99 threatens wheat in Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and India. “It`s an absolute game changer,” a cereal disease expert at the University of Minnesota said: “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”
To seed hunters an ordinary bean or grain is a potential hedge against starvation. In Addis Ababa, as described in an article titled Seeds to Save a Species by Hillary Rosner, a seed hunter visits the Shola market in search of crop varieties that could save the world`s harvest and its people from infestation, blight or drought. Seed hunters risk their lives in remote areas to retrieve seeds.
The collected seeds will be sent to seed banks such as Svalbard in Antarctica or the Pavlosk Agricultural Station, the world`s first seed bank, to be kept safe from nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and global warming.
But there are no guarantees. Abu Ghraid held Iraq`s seed bank before the 2003 American invasion destroyed its collection of lentils, rye, barley and other seeds forever. Afghanistan also had a seed bank which was eliminated during the fighting in the 1990s, and in 1985, Peru`s National Agricultural Institute was robbed of its sweet potato collection by starving homeless people. The Pavlosk Agricultural Station is currently under threat of demolition to make way for housing development while a seed bank in Ardingly, England has suffered funding cuts due to the current economic crisis.
Meanwhile, the seed hunters are still cruising for seed. Like their hero Nikolai Vavilov, the founder of the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad, Russia, who traveled China, Bolivia and Abyssinia on foot or by camel and donkey, gathering wild seed, they believe their efforts at preserving genetic diversity might someday save humanity.
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