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Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis | Food

Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis | Food

A man kneels among a spread of drying maize

We used to eat so many kinds of corn

Corn, or maize, is now grown in greater quantities than any other crop in history. It is still the staple food of about 1.2 billion people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A man kneels among a spread of drying maize

A farmer spreads maize that he recently harvested for drying in Bangalore (India), where maize is third most important cereal after rice and wheat. Photograph by Getty Images

However, the maize that we eat today is very different to what our ancestors ate.

Because of its ability to adapt to changing climates, altitudes, and day lengths, maize spread all over the globe. Nature leaves nature alone in the open field. Mother nature allows for diversity. Wind can carry pollen from one plant or flower to another plant, creating a completely different maize baby every single time.

According to USDA research geneticist Sherry Flint-Garcia, “open love pollination” enabled maize to adapt to different environments as intrepid humans It was taken further and further away from its origin in southwest Mexico.It crossed with wild and cultivated varieties.

From there, farmers would save and replant the seeds of the best plants – the hardiest, tastiest, and easiest to harvest – to create locally adapted varieties, which are called landraces or heirlooms. There were many landraces that could be cultivated from Canada to Chile in the early 20th century. Each one was adapted to the local environment and had its own unique qualities.

Dozens of landrace specimens laid out on a black background

Diverse maize varieties stored at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s genebank in Texcoco, Mexico. Photograph: CIMMYT Germplasm Bank

This is true for most of the staple crops.

These landraces have been beneficial to their ecosystems for thousands of generations. Families and communities have relied on them for thousands of year. These landraces might also have some not-so-good characteristics, but farmers would save, share, buy, and sell seeds locally. Helped the best varieties develop and thrive. Different crops such as maize, beans, and squashes were grown in the same field to control pests, fertilize soil, and provide a nutritiously balanced diet.

For maize, this changed radically around the 1920s, after scientists discovered they could take a landrace and self-pollinate the plant, creating a genetically identical inbred, and if they did this several times its characteristics would change – perhaps the plant would be taller or have a big ear of corn. These inbreds were then recrossed to create hybrids.


Locally adaptedMany varieties exist in maize varieties.

The plants with the most desirable traits may be crossed with each other several times.

The result is An inbred with consistent traits, like larger kernels.

Inbreds can be mixed to produce a variety of products. Hybrids that have beneficial traits Like bigger ears or more kernels.

 

These genetically homogenous combinations have taken over the food industry.

Locally adaptedThere are many varieties of maize breeds.

You can breed plants with desirable traits multiple times.

The result is An inbred with consistent traits, like larger kernels.

Inbreds can be mixed to produce a variety of products. Hybrids that have beneficial traits Like bigger ears or more kernels.

 

These genetically homogenous combinations have taken over the food industry.

Locally adaptedThere are many varieties of maize breeds.

You can breed plants with desirable traits multiple times.

The result is An inbred with consistent traits, like larger kernels.

Inbreds can be mixed to produce a variety of products. Hybrids that have beneficial traits Like bigger ears or more kernels.

 

These genetically homogenous combinations have taken over the food industry.

Locally adaptedThere are many varieties of maize breeds.

The plants with the most desirable traits may be crossed with each other several times.

The result is An inbred with consistent traits, like larger kernels.

Inbreds can be mixed to produce a variety of products. Hybrids that have beneficial traits Like bigger ears or more kernels.

 

These genetically homogenous combinations have taken over the food industry.

Farmers have to replace hybrid seeds every year. However, this has led to a massive increase in yields, but it has also caused a loss of genetic diversity, as well as other characteristics like taste, nutrition, and climate sensitivity. Mexico lost 80% of its varieties in a flash of an evolutionary eye. Today, 91% of the corn grown here is from hybrid seeds.

Many farmers were incentivized to or pushed to monocrop homogenous high yield varieties. These varieties rely on expensive, greenhouse gas-generating synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other machines. Over the last century, modern genetically narrow varieties have taken over much of the world’s farmland.


1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

In 1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

In 1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

In 1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

In 1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

It was almost 40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

1970The vast majority of land in Asia or Africa was used for farming. Local varieties of crops.

1.56m sq km

Local varieties

200,000 sq km

Modern varieties

40 years laterIn 2010-14, much more land was used for this purpose. Modern varieties They are often deficient in genetic diversity.

As a result we lost countless varieties of grains, fruits, vegetables and spices better equipped – thanks to their genetic makeup which evolved over generations  – to withstand certain pathogens, drought, heat, and humidity. 

Our history has shown us that diversity is important. In 1970, southern corn, a new fungusLeaf blight was responsible for the destruction of 15% of maize crops in the US, Canada and southern USA. It was caused by a genetic sequence in all hybrids. Today, around43% of maize is grown in America is still derived solely from six inbred lineages.

Like an investor with stocks, savings and real estate, diversity in the field spreads the risk: if an early season drought wipes out one crop, there will be others which mature later or are naturally more drought tolerant, so farmers aren’t left with nothing.

Wheat feeds billions – but it’s vulnerable to climate changes too

Similar stories can be told about wheat, which is the most consumed grain in the world. It is grown on every continent, except Antarctica, to make bread, chapattis and noodles, pizza, and biscuits that are enjoyed by billions.

Aerial view of a tractor running through a wheat field

After harvesting wheat in Northamptonshire in September 2021, a farmer bales straw. This was during a heatwave in the country. Photograph by PA Wire

The Green Revolution was a mid-20th-century breakthrough in wheat production. An American scientist in Mexico, Norman Borlaug developed a short-stemmed variety of wheat that could withstand the effects of fertilizers. This revolutionized the way the world farms: uniformity, yield, technology and technology became the norm, and malnutrition declined despite increasing population. This came at a high cost: loss of wheat diversity and natural ecosystems, as well as traditional knowledge. Climate change is making us pay.

Last year’s prices for durum wheat (pasta) The rise in sales was 90% after widespread drought and unprecedented heatwaves in Canada, one of the world’s biggest grain producers, followed a few months later by record rainfall. Canadian farmers have relied more on high-yielding varieties of genetically identical wheat varieties over the past century, removing crucial diversity.


Canadian wheat Variety have been growing More genetically similar Over the past century.

0.25 genetic dissimilarity

More genetically identical

To each other

Year variety was released

Canadian wheat Variety have been growing More genetically similar Over the past century.

0.25 genetic dissimilarity

More genetically identical

To each other

Year variety was released

Canadian wheat Variety have been growing More genetically similar Over the past century.

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0.25 genetic dissimilarity

More genetically identical

To each other

Year variety was released

Canadian wheat Variety have been growing More genetically similar Over the past century.

0.25 genetic dissimilarity

More genetically identical

To each other

Year variety was released

Luigi Guarino, director of the Crop Trust, said: “Climate change is the greatest threat to food security, there is nothing bigger. Under very unpredictable conditions, the more diversity in farmers’ fields the better.”

Hurricanes and rain storms are threatening our favorite coffee

In 1689, Boston opened the first US coffeehouse. Americans now drink approximately 400m cups daily. So it is not surprising that coffee is made in 80 tropical countries.

It doesn’t matter if you prefer instant or smooth, espresso comes from only two species: smooth tasting, high-quality arabica accounts for around two thirds of the consumption, and is struggling with the changing climate; and Robusta which has more caffeine and higher yields, but has a bitter, grainy taste.

Historical drawing of the Green Dragon Tavern, a colonial structure with people standing in the foreground.

The Green Dragon Tavern was one of Boston’s first and most celebrated coffee house taverns, opened in 1697. Photograph: Boston Public Library

Wild arabica coffee is a native of the forested mountains in Ethiopia and South Sudan. However, the coffee we enjoy in our flat whites and lattes today can be traced back only two sets of arabica plant snuck. Yemen In the early 17th Century.

Its future is now in doubt. 

Arabica grows at 1,300 to 2,005 meters above sea level. It is very picky about temperature, rainfall, humidity and rainfall. If it is too hot and dry, coffee will ripen quickly, which can result in a decrease in yield and quality. Our arabica doesn’t like it to be too wet or too windy either – which is a major problem for coffee growing regions prone to hurricanes like the Caribbean, Hawaii and Vietnam. By 2050, 50% of arabica growing areas could be unsuitable due to rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall.

“It’s like a monocrop, and the low genetic diversity is a huge part of its vulnerability,” said Sarada Krishnan, a coffee scientist and grower.

The global coffee industry is valued at $465bn by 2020. It has yet to produce a product. $25m to protect the world’s fourThese gene banks are the most important, and they contain many of the 131 species.


Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike Central America and Mexico it will be. Much less suitableFor the crop.

Mexico and Central America

Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike Central America and Mexico it will be. Much less suitableFor the crop.

Mexico and Central America

Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike Central America and Mexico it will be. Much less suitable For the crop.

Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike Central America and Mexico it will be. Much less suitable For the crop.

Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike Central America and Mexico it will be. Much less suitable For the crop.

Many regions will be incorporated by 2050 Where arabica coffee is currently grownLike

Mexico and Central America are likely to be Much less suitable For the crop.

It’s not just heat. Pathogens threatening coffee include insects, moths, worms and coffee leaf rust – a fungus now found in every single coffee-growing country, and which removes the ability to produce beans.

Closeup of the brown and disclored rotting leaves of a coffee plant

A coffee plant infested with the deadly fungus roya – also known as coffee rust – in Heredia, Costa Ric, in 2015, which has spread across the region over the past decade due to inadequate prevention and the climate crisis. Photograph: Getty Images

It is the basis of the livelihoods of approximately 125 millions people in Latin America and Africa. Over the past decade, coffee leaf rust has caused coffee leaf rust to destroy crops in about 70% of Central and South American farms. This has led to an increase in poverty, child malnutrition, and forced migration. The rust isn’t new. But scientists think that unpredictable rainfall and rising temperatures are causing the fungus to reproduce more quickly – and spread more widely across plantations.

These types of climate threats are likely to drive up prices. 

The race to save genetic diversity

Every apple you eat today can be traced back at the Tian Shan forested mountain between China and Kazakhstan. Here every tree produces unique fruit in size, shape, and flavor. According to Dan Saldino, a food journalist, wild orchards are dizzyingly diverse. Hidden in the trees are drought- and disease-resistant traits that we will need as climate change increases pressure on food production.

However, this living gene bank is in danger. Huge swathes of the forest have been cleared to make way for cash crops and cattle ranches. Malus Sieversii, the wild Apple that is the primary ancestor for all our favorite apples has been on IUCN’s endangered species red list since 2007. 

It’s not just apples. Vanilla is native to Mexico and Central America, but the region’s eight wild species are listed as endangered or critically endangered on the Red list.

Learn moreGene banks

More than half a million different samples of wheat – landraces, wild ancestors and commercial varieties – are stored in seed collections across the world. The international rice gene bank in the Philippines contains around 132,000 rice samples, including 24 wild species from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. These varieties taste, smell, and look very different to the bland, nutritionally poor white rice we all know. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico City, has 28,000 unique maize seeds and 150,000 maize samples. Its slogan: “Seed security is the first step towards food security”.

Not all is lost. 

The Green Revolution led to the loss of genetic diversity. This prompted a global effort to conserve and preserve genetic diversity in seed or gene banks.

The Global Seed Vault, a modern concrete structure, juts out of a baren snow-covered landscape

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built inside a mountain on a remote island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole for safety, contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. Global Crop Diversity Trust

Researchers are now able to use these genetic treasures to find wild relatives, forgotten varieties, and commercial varieties that are no longer in production to create climate-resistant and more adaptable varieties that can withstand greater uncertainty. “We’ll never get back all the diversity we had before, but the diversity we need is out there,” said Matthew Reynolds, head of wheat physiology at Cimmyt, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside Mexico City. 

While the gene bank approach is very successful in saving staple grains, it has not been as successful in saving vegetables and fruits. Although it is difficult to store seeds in a controlled environment, many foods such as vanilla, coffee, peaches, and apples need to be preserved as plants or trees. This is more complicated and costly.

In the end, we need to see greater diversity in farmers’ fields, where old varieties can once again be part of the evolutionary story.

The Global Seed Vault, a modern concrete structure, juts out of a baren snow-covered landscape

A wild banana variety that is native to south-east Asia. This is where bananas were domesticated thousands and years ago. Photograph: Fernando Garcia-Bastidas

As the clock ticks, private sector biotech solutions like gene editing or transgenics are being developed. These solutions rely upon genetic resources in publicly funded gene bank and naturally occurring biodiversity to provide the raw materials. The global seed market is 60% controlled by four agrochemical corporations, and 75% of pesticides. These companies have a direct interest in making farmers dependent on their products.

In contrast, agroecologistsRegenerative farmers and others argue that it is the best way to produce food that mimics nature and not try to overtake it with artificial methods. “It’s about understanding what farmers have done for millenia to draw on traditional knowledge – and support that with current science – to deal with evolving environmental stressors including climate change,” said Alexis Racelis, agroecology professor at the University of Texas.

Dan Saladino believes that valuing diversity and conserving endangered foods like wild arabica in Ethiopian forests, vanilla orchids of Guatemala, and apple trees in Kazakhstan, is key to improving our nutritional quality, sustainable farming, and climate adaptation.

“It’s not about going back, it’s about looking back with a bit of humility at the diversity and food systems that kept humans alive for thousands of years in greater harmony with nature – and looking at what can be applied in the 21st century food system.” 

  • This is the first article in a series on the diversity crisis in food. More coverage will follow in the coming days and weeks.
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