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Seeds of Diversity

One of the fundamental laws of nature is that variety creates stability. Variety in life forms, often referred to as biodiversity, increases chances for adaptability and deepens the gene pool for evolutionary success during crisis, for example, a changing climate. The more participants there are in the community of life, the more secure the entire community becomes. Most of us are aware of concerns for the extinction of animal species, but the situation for plant species is much the same. Allowing plant species to become extinct cuts at the fabric of life in general by diminishing variety, but specifically, it endangers food security. Protecting seed stocks is one important way to maintain diversity in plant life and secure the foundation of food resources for not just humans, but for all living things.

Tree Incarnation
"Tree Incarnation" by Mark Henson. All rights, US and International, reserved by the artist.

Humans have worked with plants and their seeds, tuning them to the climate, soil conditions, and farming methods through hybridization since the middle of the nineteenth century and the work of Gregor Mendel, but fifty years of large scale monoculture have contributed to the reduction of the number of plants species we use for nourishment and further reduced the variety of those species that we used for agriculture. Monoculture leaves our food resources open to widespread insect infestation, plant diseases, and loss of plant vitality. While plant and seed variety provide our greatest assurance for plant health, we are headed in the opposite direction.

Consider what is happening to the world's tropical rainforests, home for some of the most diverse and rare flora and fauna. When rain forests are cut down and turned into commercial property, monoculture cropland, or grazing land, more than just the water and air-cleansing properties of these critical areas are eliminated. Genetic seed pools, plant and animal, are diminished or lost. The same is true when an old-growth temperate forest is harvested or a western prairie is turned into grain land. A vast and complex ecosystem of plants and animals is destroyed. When forests are replanted, it's not with the array of species that were eliminated. They are turned into tree plantations, replanted with one, maybe two, varieties of trees and harvested every 25 or 30 years. Superficially, the forest returns, but the diversity of life with all its ecological value does not. The same is true with the way we plant our cropland. Though thousands of edible plants exist in the library of biota, only ten species of plants make up 95 percent of world agriculture!1 Our agricultural methods are not only narrowing species and seed variety, but they are equally narrowing the variety of things we eat–all to our detriment.

Variety is the essence of Earth's sustained existence and our own health. "More than half of all prescriptions filled worldwide contain active ingredients originating from wild species–particularly wild plants."2 The chances for a breakthrough in biotechnology or traditional plant breeding are directly related to the depth and breadth of Earth's genetic treasure trove. The cornucopia is abundance sustained through diversity. Once a forest is eliminated, the potential for new medicines or genetic material from rare insects or plants is lost forever. And this is happening at a frightful pace.

Habitat loss and contamination of river drainage fields is literally decimating plant, insect, and animal life. Of 4,400 catalogued mammal species, 11 percent are endangered and another 14 percent are becoming vulnerable, meaning a quarter of all mammals are threatened.3 Half of all primates, our nearest animal cousins, are threatened. 4 A third of all fish. 5 Eleven percent of all birds. 6 A fifth of all reptiles. 7 A quarter of all amphibians. 8 And unknown quantities of insects and plants are threatened. We are gradually eliminating the foundation of life on the planet. In the full extension of the complex relationships of life on this planet, these living things are really us. We may as well be cutting off our fingers and toes one at a time. In the opinion of Harvard social biologist E.O. Wilson, "The process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us." 9

And yet, instead of protecting species diversity, we have asked science to create it for us. Genetic engineering is being used to accelerate traditional seed breeding methods and increase yield. Despite all the work that has been done in genetic modification, however, "after twenty years of research, biotechnologists have not produced a single high-yielding variety of wheat, rice, or corn."10 The reason for this is that a hundred years of traditional techniques have "largely exploited the genetic potential for increasing the share of photosynthate that goes into the seed."11 This is not to say that advances will not be made, but current trends in genetic modification to create pest resistant seeds strains or mutually acceptable pesticides and seeds have created as many problems as solutions. More than just contentious seed patent rights battles and accidental wind blown germination, there are real health concerns with genetically modified foods. The narrowing and/or the contamination of our seed pool would be an egregious error.

But genetic technology should not be rejected whole clothe. Recent advances in genomics have created a technique called "marker assisted selection" (MAS.) MAS offers a less invasive approach to bioengineering. Rather than modifying genes by inserting or splicing DNA from other species into a plant gene, genes within the species can be recognized for positive traits and cross-bred in a way to enhance yield, pest resistance, or quality.12

When we use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, we are playing another version of biotechnology, filtering toxins right through the seed stock, flora and fauna, and eventually through ourselves. Yes, our over use of petrochemical additives is an example of poor technical choices, but all technology can not be counted out. Scientific disciplines of all kinds will be called upon to solve many of the environmental problems industrialization has created. Stem cell research is part of this, but make no mistake about it, bioengineering, much like harnessing the energy of the atom, must be done with utmost caution. In the end, however, protecting our planet's natural variety through careful husbandry might well be a better plan than trying to alter Mother Nature's original inspiration.

There is a genetic integrity bred through all life on this planet. It is a fine and sacred thing. Yes, we have the technology to do the miraculous, splice genes and clone sheep, but the story of Frankenstein still rings true. Our tampering with the threads of life can not be too cautious. Biotechnology is offered as one candle in the building wind of food demand, but as in irrigation, chemical fertilization, and pesticide use, moderation of industrial impact is essential to sustainability. Whatever we do, no matter what immediate pressures we face, we currently operate within delicate limits. Add the uncertainty of global warming and climate change and the jeopardy of our food security doubles. Underlying all that we will face in the long and short term future will be our stores of seeds. In the managment of the planet Earth, maintaining seed stock diversity and vitality by caring for the natural diversity of life should one of our highest priorities.

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