Breaking the centralization and concentration of our food supply system will create new jobs (see here and here ) and build stability to our local economies.

However, it will also provide great resilience to our food supply and national security. By having a vast number of farmers in diverse regions all over the country, variety diversity can be regained. As shown by this month’s National Geographic, this is a national security issue.

Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.

Why do I say this is a national security issue?

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct. The precipitous loss of the world’s wheat diversity is a particular cause for concern. One of wheat’s oldest adversaries, Puccinia graminis, a fungus known as stem rust, is spreading across the globe. The pestilence’s current incarnation is a virulent and fast-mutating strain dubbed Ug99 because it was first identified in Uganda in 1999. It then spread to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen. By 2007 it had jumped the Persian Gulf into Iran. Scientists predict that Ug99 will soon make its way into the breadbaskets of India and Pakistan, then infiltrate Russia, China, and—with a mere hitch of a spore on an airplane passenger’s shoe—our hemisphere as well.

Roughly 90 percent of the world’s wheat is defenseless against Ug99. Were the fungus to come to the U.S., an estimated one billion dollars’ worth of wheat would be at risk. Scientists project that in Asia and Africa alone the portion of wheat in imminent danger would leave one billion people without their primary food source. A significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable, according to Rick Ward of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project at Cornell University.

As we have seen recently, a single negligent act at on plant in Arkansas is capable of contaminating food in 26 states. Imagine what the intentional act of single terrorist could do.

We limit the danger of catastrophic epidemics when our food supply is not so concentrated and controlled by so few agribusinesses and corporations. The National Geographic article reminds us of a famous historical episode when a country lost variety diversity: the Irish Potato Famine.

One cautionary tale about the perils of relying on a homogenous food source revolves around the humble potato. High in the Peruvian Andes, where the potato was first domesticated, farmers still grow thousands of otherworldly looking varieties. Spanish ships in the late 16th century first brought the tuber to Europe, where by the early 1800s it had become a reliable backup to cereal crops, particularly in the cold, rain-soaked soils of Ireland. The Irish were soon almost wholly dependent on the potato as their food staple. And they were planting primarily one prodigious variety, the Lumper potato, whose genetic frailty would be cruelly exposed by Phytophthora infestans, as fearsome a foe of potatoes as stem rust is of wheat. In 1845 spores of the deadly fungus began spreading across the country, destroying nearly all the Lumpers in its path. The resulting famine killed or displaced millions.

But you can do your part also: when you plant your gardens, plants some heirloom varieties.

Update: h/t Daily Yonder

We found it interesting that President Barack Obama would speak at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, yesterday. One of the big issues in parts of rural America is seed ownership. And one of the areas where the Obama administration has failed to act is on an investigation into who owns, controls and profits from seeds.

Over two years ago, the Obama Administration announced it was opening an investigation into antitrust violations in the agriculture business. One of the areas the Department of Justice and Agriculture said they would investigate was the ownership of seed.

That was a good choice. A study in 2009 found that “seed industry is one of the most concentrated in agriculture. The top four firms account for 43 percent of the global commercial seed market, which includes both public and proprietary varieties sold. They also account for 50 percent of the global proprietary seed market.”

This is a huge issue in farming communities. Farmers aren’t allowed to save the seeds from the crops they grow. In 2008, there were standing room only meetings across the Farm Belt about seed ownership.

So, the President comes to Seed Savers, which does the good work of collecting heirloom seeds. He is on a “rural tour” but he is apparently unaware that the issue of seed ownership is a rural issue that, at one time, was a focus of his administration.

 

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