Sunday, June 19, 2011

National Geographic Discusses Decreasing Genetic Diversity in Our Food System

The recently released July issue of National Geographic Magazine highlights the issue of genetic diversity, or more accurately, the lack of genetic diversity in our modern food supply.

The feature article is Food Ark by Charles Siebert.  It discusses the rapid loss of genetic diversity and explains why this loss should be of concern to us.
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.
The article discusses the risk that this presents by highlighting current concerns regarding the wheat stem rust, Puccinia graminis, a fungus with a "virulent and fast-mutating strain dubbed Ug99."  Ninety percent of the wheat currently under commercial cultivation is susceptible to this deadly fungus.

As the article points out, "[t]he irony is that the dangerous dwindling of diversity in our food supply is the unanticipated result of an agricultural triumph" as we continue to specialize production and isolate the traits we wish to encourage.

Other articles and graphics in the issue include Counting on Uncommon Chickens, a graphic series that highlights the impact of "world’s reliance on a few high-yielding breeds."  Nearly a third of chicken breeds are at risk for extinction.  And, there is a graphic series titled Sustainable Beef that addresses cattle breeds; That's a Potato, considers the amazing diversity of this important food crop;  Seeds Worth Saving, highlights the importance of non-food, but food-related genetic diversity; and a Sidebar features tips on Growing Your Own Heirlooms.

One of my favorites is the following graphic -  Our Dwindling Food Variety.  

A lot to consider.


Blogger Jeremy said...

Indeed, it is a great issue of Nat Geo. However, given that many people take National Geographic as gospel, it does seem a shame that some of the "potatoes" that at least four of the 18 images are not potatoes at all. they are Oca, Oxalis tuberosa. And one may be mashua, Tropaeolum tuberosus.

Very odd for Nat Geo to fall down on its fact-checking like this.

6/20/2011 4:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Susan - this is a bit surprising, given the heightened interest in the past dozen years for heirloom varieties. I just planted two heirloom apples and will plant heirloom tomatoes next year (too late this year and had to rely on local plants). Plus I have Barred Rock (old Plymouth Rock) hens in my coop. Commercial growers may be relying on fewer varieties and my guess is that they will narrow those down as GM varieties take over. Oh well, "we have met the enemy and it is us!"-Pogo

6/20/2011 12:00 PM  
Blogger kingnid said...

We need everyone to grow old varieties and learn to save seeds!

6/21/2011 12:16 PM  

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