To achieve sustainability and higher levels of productivity, production systems will have to rely increasingly on ecological processes and ecosystem services, on the diversity of varieties, breeds, strains and species
For at least 12,000 years, humans have been sowing, selecting, domesticating and freely exchanging seeds in order to adapt to the conditions of an ever-changing Earth. Then, a century or so ago, things went pear-shaped.
Since the 1900s, crop diversity has been narrowing at a dramatic pace. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), some "75% of genetic diversity has been lost".
In the mainstream, farmers have turned away from locally adapted, traditional varieties of domesticated species (landraces) in favour of alternatives offering higher yields.
The consequences of shrinking diversity don't take much head-scratching to work out. The first is that the world's meals have become homogenised. Three crops - wheat, rice and corn (also known as maize) - account for 43% of all food eaten... anywhere in the world. There are over 2,000 different varieties of apple in the UK, but you're unlikely to spot more than 20 in supermarkets.
A recent report by charity People Need Nature has revealed the effect that homogenised taste buds have had on land-use in England: "Most (84%) of arable land grows cereals and oilseed rape. Just 30% of this area is used to produce wheat good enough to mill for flour, and most of this is used to make bread. The other 70% of wheat and other cereals grown in England is used to feed animals".
Maize in particular is harvested late in the season, so the stubble is usually left over winter. The unprotected soil is then washed off the fields into streams and rivers, worsening the impact of downstream flooding.
"Maize fields are also very poor for wildlife; nothing much can live in them." writes author of the study, Miles King.
Secondly, a master key to food security has been handed to multinational agricultural corporations. In France's Official Catalogue of Plant Varieties, five major corporations now own 6,000 strains. What's more, 95% of all the corn seeds registered in the catalogue are hybrid, which means they have a declining yield characteristic: every season, a farmer will likely need to buy more seed to obtain high yields and will pay royalties on any seeds they do replant. By using intellectual property laws to charge these royalties, environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva believes agriculture giants, ‘make commodity out of what nature created for us'.
As the population rises, seed diversity will decide whether 370 million go hungry
Narrowing seed diversity poses a threat to the security, resilience and productivity of the global agr-food system in the future, particularly with reference to population growth and climate change.
The United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization's Coping with Climate Change report highlights that genetic diversity, "has long been an essential element of strategies to reduce the effects of crop diseases and abiotic stresses such as drought."
The FAO predicts that the world will need to be producing 70% more food by 2050 in order to feed a third more mouths. UN projections put the world's population at 9.7 billion by 2050, rising to 12.2 billion by 2100.
"To achieve sustainability and higher levels of productivity, production systems will have to rely increasingly on ecological processes and ecosystem services, on the diversity of varieties, breeds, strains and species, and on diversification of management strategies (Galluzzi et al., 2011)," states the report.
Almost all of the population growth will occur in developing countries - particularly Sub-Saharan Africa - so enhanced access to food will also be needed to stop an estimated 370 million people from going hungry in 2050.
The question of how best to provide food security for a growing global population without causing irrevocable harm to the Earth's climate and environment is perhaps the most pressing challenge faced today. A fierce debate is raging over the best answer.
The deep-freeze option
Spitsbergen, a remote island in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago - the farthest north a person can hope to travel on a scheduled flight - might seem an unlikely location for one of the possible solutions. But that's exactly what it has been described as. Buried 120m deep inside a mountain on Spitsbergen, lies a ‘doomsday vault' capable of storing 4.5 million seed samples, equating to 2.25 billion seeds. In foil packages sealed in boxes and kept at -18°C (-0.4°F) the genetic information of 10,000 years of agriculture lies frozen.
Svalbard Seed Vault is built for worst-case scenarios: natural disasters like drought, pestilence, disease and man-made disasters like war. It claims to be "the ultimate insurance policy for the world's food supply", containing backups of the world's crop collection.
At the time of writing, the count stands at 870,971 seed samples, originating from almost every country in the world; wooden boxes have even arrived from North Korea.
Svalbard's deep-freeze is an example of one possible solution: gene bank collections that store seed diversity for the long-term, so that it may be used by breeders in the future, returned to farmers and offered to consumers.
However, seed diversity is already being protected in situ. A study by a Penn State geographer, taking into account information from 11 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, suggests 75% of global seed diversity currently survives in small-scale holdings of less than three to seven acres. These seeds include staple food crops like maize, rice, wheat, potatoes and teff (in Ethiopia).
At Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm, securing biodiversity for the future goes hand-in-hand with protecting the livelihoods of smallholders. Stretching for 47 acres between the Ganga and the Yamuna, the Shivalik and Himalayan mountain ranges, it is a seed vault in action, founded by environmentalist Vandana Shiva in 1995 on land that had been previously degraded by sugarcane and eucalyptus plantations.
More than two decades on, the farm now claims to be saving 1,500 varieties of seeds and trees, while creating a biodiversity sanctuary for birds, butterflies, insects and soil microorganisms. "We do not just grow crops and biodiversity," its website declares, "we are cultivating community."
Around 122 community seed banks have been set up across 18 states of India to collect and save seeds from disappearance, multiply them, then distribute them according to farmers' needs. So far, these banks have supplied farmers after events like floods in Uttarakhand, Cyclone Phailin in Odisha and the Nepal Earthquake.
Futile or fertile?
It is tempting to believe that Svalbard and Navdanya can coexist happily. When facing the apocalypse you can't be picky in your choice of partner, and they represent two sides of the same coin after all. Both are protecting seed diversity: it's simply that one does so in its original place, the other in a new location.
For Vandana Shiva though, Svalbard is symptomatic of a dangerous shift in agriculture: it's going hands-free. By locking seeds in what are essentially long-stay (exceedingly cold) ‘car parks', they are open to being patented in the future: "While living seeds need to evolve ‘in situ', patents on genomes can be taken through access to seed ‘ex situ'," she warns.
Projects that aim to map the genetic data of seeds held in gene banks rob farmers, "of their seeds and knowledge, it robs the seed of its integrity and diversity, its evolutionary history, its link to the soil and reduces it to "code."" adds Shiva.
Svalbard's samples cannot be accessed by anyone other than their national depositor, but the vault is sponsored in part by two multinational agribusiness megaliths - DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta - as well as the Bill Gates Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. Concerns over what they stand to gain are understandable, and conspiracy theories are rife (though whether there is any fire behind all the smoke remains to be seen).
Money is - as ever - also at the heart of the debate. The Crop Trust, which funds the world's gene banks, states: "These crop collections are also often threatened, most typically by inadequate funding".
Yet, the same is true of small-scale farming. People Need Nature's Miles King states that in the UK: "farm subsidies are available only to farmers with more than 5 hectares, which excludes the producers it should be supporting".
Is the future in your hands?
All of this suggests a coming age of hands-free farming is on its way. In a prepared testimony from Syngenta, littered with reference to Google's self-driving cars and rocket ship development, Monsanto's chief technology officer states: ‘The pace of innovation is accelerating, and new tools and applications are creating a healthy disruption in agriculture.'
Robots have been developed for tasks like recognising and picking ripe fruit, or identifying and eradicating individual weeds; Monsanto and Bayer both already offer digital farming services. Data from sensors in farmers' fields and satellites decide the appropriate seeds to plant, the exact amount of chemicals to apply and the exact time to apply them throughout the growing season.
This is indicative of the Modern Age. It reveals humanity's automation bias: mankind trusts software, but sometimes this trust is so strong that other sources of information, including humans' own senses, are distrusted.
"To resist invention is not to reject invention. It's to humble invention, to bring progress down to Earth," writes the author Nicholas Carr in his book The Glass Cage. "What makes one tool superior to another has nothing to do with how new it is. What matters is how it enlarges us or diminishes us, how it shapes our experience of nature and culture and one another," he says.
"Bringing our hands back into function is going to be the biggest revolution of our time." predicts Vandana Shiva.
Seeds will tell.
This article is part of a new content-sharing arrangement with the LUSH - the ethical cosmetics company that also works to support sustainable farming practices across the Globe