December 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 12
B O O K R E V I E W
Sowing the Seeds of Destruction
Not since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 has a book presented a warning as dire and as worldwide in its implications for the environment and the future of our food supply as Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. Authors Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney explain that the agricultural systems that are today supplying a worldwide food manufacturing system with its raw materials are becoming increasingly dependent on corporate agribusiness and that the uniformity of the world's food crops is growing rapidly. Fowler and Mooney's basic message is that genetic diversity nurtured during 10,000 years of human agriculture is now in danger of being wiped out. Without that diversity, crop evolution will cease and the survival of many of the world's basic foods will be threatened.
Written in a highly appealing narrative and factual style, underscored throughout with thoughtful political and economic analysis and not without touches of sardonic humor, this book by two long-time agricultural activists is a must read. Shattering provides a well-documented, clear-headed analysis of the challenges the world, particularly its agriculturally wealthy nations, face in confronting the question of genetic diversity. It also serves as a testament to the long-standing work of the authors and their associates in alerting the general public and the farming communities of the world to those challenges.
Shattering traces the origins of agriculture in the lives of hunters and gatherers, and points out the diverse beginnings of agriculture itself. "Agriculture began between ten and fifteen thousand years ago through the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people on several continents, and in many different social and ecological situations. The agriculture they established, suited to their own needs, was developed over the course of several thousand years."
When human beings initially began to domesticate plants, they selected plants that had traits which ultimately would be of great advantage to people. For example, they collected seeds which were larger, matured at harvest time and were "non- Shattering," meaning the seeds were not easily dispersed but clung to plants. The repeated selection and sowing of these seeds led to the development of plants more and more amenable to cultivation. But the multiplicity of places in which this process occurred ensured that a wide variety of plants, adapted to the particular requirements and situations of people all over the world, would flourish.
Today, however, the international genetics-supply industry--made up of multinational chemical, pharmaceutical and food companies- -is absorbing the world's small and medium-sized seed companies and strengthening its control over the world's crops. In promoting their narrow line of seed varieties, the multinationals are rapidly pushing the industrialized countries toward an overall sameness in their food supply and threatening the world's genetic diversity. At the same time, they are expanding their sales to farmers in the Third World, the origin of most of the world's indispensable plant varieties. By allowing this to occur, the world is inviting environmental disaster and widespread hunger.
Farmers who begin to rely on the high-yield seeds sold by the highly concentrated international genetics supply industry soon find themselves caught in a trap. Uniform crops are especially vulnerable to pests and disease, forcing growers to use pesticides, often sold by the same companies that provide seeds. Consequently, individual farmers become increasingly dependent on the genetics-supply industry.
The integration of independent farmers into the worldwide corporate agribusiness system also has a negative effect on biodiversity. In expressing general alarm over the fate of the more traditional seed varieties, Fowler and Mooney stress that the extinction of a seed variety does not come simply at the time when there are no more seeds; rather extinction comes when the seeds' development process ceases to exist. As farmers become more dependent on the genetics supply industry, they lose the ability to nurture that development process.
Fowler and Mooney point out that approximately 97 percent of the varieties on a 1903 USDA vegetable list are now extinct. The consequences of such uniformity were demonstrated by the 1970 corn blight, which destroyed over 15 percent of the U.S. crop. In the wake of the corn blight, a 1972 U.S. National Academy of Sciences report, Genetic Vulnerability of Major Crops, revealed that the United States was shockingly reliant on a handful of seed varieties for its major crops. Fowler and Mooney emphasize that the study concluded that U.S. agriculture was "impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable."
Tracing the origins of Latin America's coffee industry illustrates how dependent whole nations and regions of the world have become on a few crop varieties.
Coffee is native to Ethiopia. Over a thousand years ago, Arab and Persian traders brought the bean to Yemen for cultivation. Later, seven seeds were transported to India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to begin production there. The Dutch inherited these coffee plants when they took over Sri Lanka from the Portugese.
The Dutch replanted one tree in Indonesia, and in 1706 a cutting from that tree was shipped to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden where it still resides. Healthy progeny from that tree were subsequently sent as a gift to King Louis XIV of France.
The Dutch, nine years after receiving the initial cuttings, also sent cuttings from the Amsterdam tree to their colony in Suriname. In 1723, cuttings from King Louis' Jardin Royale were sent to Martinique. The entire coffee industry of Latin America is thus based on the seven plants taken from Yemen a thousand years ago and then from one plant in Indonesia almost 300 years ago.
Today, Fowler and Mooney report, there is little genetic diversity in coffee crops outside of Ethiopia. But the Ethiopian government, which believes the country has historically not received fair compensation for its genetic resources, is refusing to permit future collection of coffee resources from Ethiopia. "Unless Ethiopia relents," Fowler and Mooney write, "we will have an opportunity to see what happens to a narrowly-based crop like coffee without recourse to badly needed genetic resources. Our advice to coffee addicts? Have you really given tea a chance?"
The authors' discussion of the politics of efforts aimed at global conservation of seed crops is particularly illuminating. They describe the struggle among corporate agribusiness interests, Third World governments, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) to establish ground rules that will ensure the preservation and exchange of germplasm among all countries. Unfortunately, they report, international efforts at seed preservation have favored crops of primary interest to breeders in the industrialized countries.
As founding staff members of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a nonprofit organization working for just and sustainable agriculture, both Fowler and Mooney have been participants in, and eyewitnesses to, many of those struggles.
Based on their years of observations and careful research, the authors have sought to develop a constructive approach to the enormous political, economic and scientific problems that the questions of genetic diversity pose. They have concluded that five principles of genetic conservation are necessary to preserve a healthy and diversified seed culture. They favor decentralized, broad-based strategies of preservation. Multiple strategies must be employed, with as many groups as possible-- including not just scientists, but farmers, fishing people and medicine makers--consulted about what should be saved and how. Agricultural diversity must be used, so that it continues to evolve and retain its value. And, efforts to save agricultural diversity must be interwoven with efforts to save the farm community: "Diversity, like music or a dialect, is part of the community that produced it. It cannot exist for long without that community and the circumstances that gave rise to it. Saving farmers is a prerequisite of saving diversity. Conversely, communities must save their agricultural diversity in order to retain their own options for development and self- reliance. Someone else's seeds imply someone else's needs."
"We each have a special role to play in passing this gift [genetic diversity] on to the next generation," write Fowler and Mooney. Throughout history, they show, it has been "amateurs"-- people who love their seeds--more than scientists who have saved diversity.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Project.