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World food security at risk as variety of crops shrinks

by Samuel Mintz | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 4 March 2014 11:38 GMT

The last of the 2012 drought-stricken corn is seen at Mayne's Tree Farm in Buckeystown, Maryland, on October 27, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

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As diets around the globe become more similar, one rogue pest or disease could wipe out a big share of the world’s food, scientists warn

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Globalisation touches almost every aspect of life in the modern world, including the food we eat. Over the last 50 years, diets around the world have become more and more similar while the diversity of food supply has decreased, which could mean that the world’s crops will be increasingly vulnerable to climate change and other dangers, according to a new report.

Eating a less diverse range of crops, for example, could bring health or nutritional problems, but it could also put at risk world food supplies if a dominant crop variety becomes vulnerable to pests or diseases, or to the increasingly unpredictable weather that comes with climate change, according to the report by CGIAR, a global agricultural research consortium.

Such dangers are not necessarily new ones, said Colin Khoury, the lead author of the report. “We know from history that there is vulnerability caused by uniformity in agriculture. The big examples, terrible ones of course, are the Irish potato famine and an event with corn in the U.S. in the 70s,” in which a fungus swept through highly homogenous U.S. cornfields, destroying 15 percent of the nation’s crop in 1970.

What is new, according to the report, is the scale of the risk, and the stakes involved. As global population continues to grow, the need to feed additional billions expands along with it. “International agencies have hammered away in recent years with the message that agriculture must produce more food for over 9 billion people by 2050,” said co-author Andy Jarvis, in a press release.


If crop failures occur in one of a very few dominant crops in a much more populated world, the effect could be disastrous, Khoury said.

 “I have an analogy I like to use about transport systems. Here where I live in Cali, Colombia, people take these microbuses to work, and there’s 20-30 people on a bus, and if any of those buses breaks down, it affects that many people,” he said.

“But if you have a system like the Tokyo metro, where you’re transporting millions of people a day and its efficient and fast and people believe in it and its working, if you have a breakdown in that system, it also affects a lot more people,” he said.

To more effectively protect food security, farmers must produce a variety of crops, not just a few high yielding ones, the report’s authors argue. Khoury said he doesn’t see these two goals as competing but complementary.

“Diversity and variety doesn’t mean a decrease in yield at all,” he said.

The limiting factor in ensuring diverse crops are grown, said Khoury, is a lack of research and cooperation between the public sector and the private sector, the latter of which dominates food production and supply more than ever before.

The report offers a range of suggestions to ease potential problems, including promoting the adoption of more varied crops and fostering public awareness of the need for healthier diets.

Khoury singled out as his top priority the need to support the conservation and continued use of genetically varied crops.

 “That’s something that if we don’t do a good job with, we’re basically limiting our future options forever,” he said. “That’s about (protecting) the genetic diversity that breeders use to change and make their crops more productive.”

A broad range of crop varieties are “typically held in seed banks or gene banks around the world, but they’re drastically underfunded, there’s a lot still in the world that’s out there that hasn’t been collected, and our political systems aren’t yet doing a good job of both funding them and making them available to the people who need them the most: breeders from countries that don’t have a lot of resources,” he said.

The news isn’t all bad. In some regions, and parts of some countries, diets remain diverse and traditional. In Norway and Sweden, diets have changed relatively little and diversity in foods eaten remains strong. That has come about in part because of public education campaigns and awareness about the impacts of food choices, as well as policies on taxation and import tariffs, Khoury said.

In some areas of the world, diets are even growing more diverse, particularly in cereals and vegetables, he said.

“How the rest of the world can learn from these areas that have started to make that transition, before we get epidemics of diet-related disease, is the big question for me going in the future” he said.

Samuel Mintz is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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