Genetic Diversity: Nature’s Insurance


Outside my Colorado office the thermometer is inching above 70°, with a warm sun coaxing a few crocus plants to peek above ground. Meanwhile, CNN is carrying continuous coverage to the Stormaggedon unfolding in the northeast.

As much as I enjoy basking in warm sunshine in January, the more frequent occurences of vast weather changes are stressing our food system. The same 70° that make pounding fence posts easier in the pasture, also signal the fruit trees to send out their first buds. That could spell disaster for those fruit growers when the normal cold weather returns.

The United National Food and Agriculture Organization just addressed this issue in a report is entitled: “Climate Change: The Roles of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

The full report is 130 pages long, but I can sum it up in one sentence: We’ve got to restore genetic diversity to help us cope with climate change.

Conventional farming has been on a steady march toward uniformity over the last century. When Texas A&M University developed a wheat variety that produced higher yields several years ago, nearly every loaf of commercially baked bread was soon produced from this TAM 107 wheat. Today, Holsteins account for more than 90 percent of the dairy cows in the united States, and a high percentage of those cows are the descendents of one bull (I’ll spare the details of how one bull can be responsible for thousands of offspring from coast to coast).

The dangers created by the collapse in genetic diversity are rapidly becoming evident.

The Russian Wheat Aphid—virtually unknown in the U.S. before 1986—found the TAM 107 wheat particularly tasty. It’s now considered a major threat to U.S. wheat production.

Similarly, the increase in lactose intolerance among many people is actually the result of an intolerance to the type of milk produced by Holsteins.

Across the country, organic growers have been at the forefront of the fight to keep genetic diversity alive in agriculture. After all, one of the best ways to fight Russian Wheat Aphids is to plant a heritage variety that the pests don’t like to eat.

Now, the organic farmers have the weight of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on their side. But in order to make it work, they need the American consumer on their side as well.

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