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The flood of the seed vault is just the start of our troubles

The flood of the seed vault is just the start of our troubles


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By Jack Heinemann *

Built in permafrost, the ten-year-old Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which currently contains 850,000 varieties of food crop seeds, had to take care of itself, operating "without the help of humans." This refrigerator in an abandoned coal mine made headlines for needing our help.

Widely known as the "doomsday vault" and the idea of ​​conservationist Cary Fowler, it is supposed to safeguard the food supply in the event of a regional or global catastrophe. "Even given the worst-case scenario for global warming, the three rooms of the vault will naturally remain frozen for up to two hundred years," Fowler said. Although no seeds were destroyed in the flood, which occurred last year - the water froze in the tunnel, long before it reached the vaults - the event defies Fowler's reassuring calculations. It is a reminder of the dangers of underestimating the power of climate change.

However, correct calculations on climate change have always been a problem with the vault. Gene banks can do important work in preserving biodiversity and having security backups that help the world run more smoothly through crisis. But they are not insurance policies for the apocalypse. Even thinking that it might invite disaster.


Let's start with genetics, the science of genes. In his book Seeds on Ice (2016), Fowler explains his reasoning for creating the seed bank. "New varieties do not emerge again. They are composed of traits-genes-assemblies of previous, even old varieties and populations…. And those traits could be those that could protect the crop from catastrophic failure, or worse." Preserving a great diversity of seeds can preserve some genetic diversity - and our ability to feed ourselves - in the adverse future.

Unfortunately, however, evolution could confuse those good intentions. Organisms are the result of their genes and the effects of the environment. What a gene does depends on where it is, in what genome, cell, or environment. Biodiversity is a combination of all these potentials. Ecosystems are the result of both genes and the environment influencing each other. The hope of preserving biodiversity only by freezing genes from the past is naive.

Consider what could happen when there is a conflict caused by the mismatch of old genes with new ecosystems.

William Rice of the University of California, Santa Cruz, only collected the offspring from matings between fruit flies in the course of about a year. That's roughly 40 generations, or 1,000 years in human time. The offspring were allowed to mate with females with a specific genetic profile that could not change.

In other words, the female genetics were frozen in time, isolated from evolution. The males do not. Only males that had more children were allowed to breed. Any mutation that improved the number of offspring of a male fly would be better represented in subsequent generations.

In that short period of time, the males developed seminal fluid that was toxic to the females, killing many. Although it seems counterintuitive to harm the mother of her unborn children, the mutations reduced a female's ability to be fertilized by another male and also modified female behavior to be less receptive to mating a second time with other males.

In the wild, males with toxic semen ultimately selected females who were immune to it. This encapsulates the arms race between the sexes in non-monogamous species. But by allowing only one genome to run in the race, freezing the female genome in an ancient time, females were unable to develop adaptations to compensate for the new male traits that hurt them.

Evolution works by rules that we sometimes don't anticipate. Furthermore, genomes form ecosystems and environments; the latter do not only select adapted genomes. The flies are warning us that we can't just unfreeze the past for a sustainable future.

To be fair, that was not what the architects of the Global Seed Vault were trying to do. In fact, as Fowler describes it in his book, the seed bank is less an effort to avoid Armageddon than it is to preserve biodiversity: “With a duplicate sample of each different variety safeguarded in the Seed Vault, genebanks can be certain that the loss of a variety in your institution, or even the loss of the entire collection, will not mean the extinction of the variety or collection and its diversity ”.

Seed banks are like zoos for genes. Like zoos, they do not have a biodiversity representative of a time for any species, but examples of genetic diversity. Some of the deposited genes can be resurrected by replicating them back into the genomes of existing crops, recycling important traits.

Fowler is right to worry about the loss of plant genetic diversity. Plants have been feeding us and our livestock for the past 10,000 years. In the recent period from the 1960s to the present, crop availability has increased from 2,360 to 2,884 kilocalories per day per person.

But our gain has been the loss of biodiversity. About 60 percent of plant-derived calories in the human diet come from just four crops: wheat, rice, potatoes and corn, and 80 percent are from just eight more. What we eat is only a tiny portion of the edible plants on the planet. And who sows these calories is also a small portion of society, at least in rich nations where the size of the farm is growing. That, by the way, leaves most of the world's farmers, on small farms, to supply us with the necessary nutrients.

For large staple crops, a few nations dominate the world supply. They select the narrow genetic base that works best for them. Those large markets dictate the breeding programs, which in turn respond to commercial signals rather than a public need to maintain the diversity of agroecosystems.

The decline in agrobiodiversity in the world's staple crops is not hypothetical. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, says that about 10,000 varieties of wheat were in use in China in 1949, but only 1,000 remained in the 1970s. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, 95% of cabbage, 91% of corn, 94% of peas, and 81% of tomato varieties used in the United States were lost.

Breeders depend on a gene in the frozen genome to confer the same trait on the new one. That is possible, but as fruit flies show us, that is not always what happens. Genomes are not rows of genes, as in the sense of a building made of bricks. A genome is a potential; an organism is a brick. The latter will work under a range of conditions and under those circumstances will continue to be recognized as a brick. Drop outside of a nominal range and the brick will fail.

All the materials that went into the construction of the brick have individual properties and new properties that emerge in combination. These materials are like the genes of a genome, which, as a whole, describes how organisms remain functional despite encountering changes in their external environments and internal physiology.

Using the same materials in different compositions can recreate some of the same properties that bricks possess. However, in a new context and combination of materials, the product can no longer clearly be a brick or a function in the same stress range that we would expect a brick to tolerate.

The value of banks is that they are sources of traits that broaden or modify the range of conditions under which a plant's systems can remain nominal. These could make a plant less vulnerable to a pest or disease, or less in need of water. As important as these changes may be, however, most are incremental and transitory. Fowler himself writes: "There is no single 'best' variety of any crop, at least not for long. There can't be." And the ravages of climate change are ushering in a "pre-rice, pre-wheat, pre-potato, pre-agriculture" climate for which there would be no seed in the vault, no matter how many years they have been adapted.

Every innovation in crop genetics changes the environment in which crops are grown. Increase a plant's ability to grow in drought, and the next year there may be even less soil moisture. Eventually, no amount of change in the genome will be enough to overcome the effects of desiccation and continue to make the plant that we recognize, or that we can eat. Expecting otherwise is distracting from the goal: stopping or at least minimizing climate change.
There are countless paths to the apocalypse, many of which can get us there on their own. The precipitous and irreversible loss of biodiversity is one of them, and we are well on our way.

To be clear, when we talk about biodiversity we are not doing a census. This is where the idea of ​​seed banks falls short.

Take the example of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a manifestation of the loss of biodiversity. Before human use of antibiotics, there were bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Still, the great diversity of bacteria, even within a single species, flooded the resistant ones so that for periods of time each antibiotic was effectively effective.

The genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics have become so common, and the number of bacteria resistant to most or all antibiotics is growing so rapidly, that soon no antibiotic can be used with confidence. It is a loss of biodiversity: the loss of environments free of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Extinction of susceptible bacteria is not necessary for antibiotics to fail. Resistance could be a trait held by a tiny minority of bacteria, and antibiotics would still fail, if some of those bacteria were in every environment we share. Antibiotics are so powerful in killing susceptible bacteria that resistant ones are almost guaranteed to succeed as long as antibiotics are used.

Therefore, putting antibiotic-susceptible bacteria in the freezer would never be enough to restore the usefulness of antibiotics in the future. The characteristic of an ecosystem where antibiotics can be used to treat infections is now almost lost to planet Earth, despite the fact that the number of bacteria susceptible to antibiotics is astronomical.

An insurance policy in the form of a seed vault underestimates the complexity of the interactions between genetics and the environment. It also underestimates (or is agnostic about) the impacts of agricultural technology. Agriculture will not be responsible for the apocalypse, but it is so far indispensable to it. Through agriculture, humanity has been reducing the genetic diversity of our food base, but at the same time replacing complex ecosystems with nitrogen-fed monocultures managed with pesticides. These effects on biodiversity are possible in part thanks to breeder-assisted, chemically-assisted solutions to the needs of farmers. Those needs are, in large part, the result of the ideological and economic forces that we have created that determine how a farm can remain financially viable.

Agriculture is the way that a culture responds to the need for food and delivers it according to certain economic constraints using available technology. Resistance to some products of technology is often presented as resistance to change. But this belies the origin of most technologies as a means of avoiding change by ameliorating the effects of our deep-seated habits that created the problems in the first place. Often times, new technologies simply allow economic and political actors to avoid difficult but true solutions to society's problems.

In his novel The Windup Girl (2009), Paolo Bacigalupi describes a future in which wealth is measured in calories and calories are controlled by calorie merchants. Traders own the main sources of germplasm and sell it to farmers or license the intellectual property for local production. To maintain global hegemony, traders infest with waves of pests and pathogens to make crop varieties no longer under their control obsolete, forcing nations to return to them to acquire germplasm.

A conspiracy of mega-corporations that threaten starving nations is one way to achieve such a future, but it is not the only way. Monocultures are enough. Crop monocultures select for predators and pests. So do simplistic pest control strategies, such as over-reliance on just one or a few insecticides or herbicides, or the replacement of chemical pest control with a range of control technologies.

Monoculture agriculture, backed by chemical inputs that benefit from the strongest intellectual property rights instruments ever used, concentrates control of the food supply in the hands of a small number of companies. Already only three agrochemical companies control more than 50 percent of the global proprietary seed market; ten companies control 73 percent. In the United States, three companies own 85 percent and 70 percent of the patents on corn and other crops, respectively.

Shortly after the near failure of the genetic monoculture corn crop in the United States in the early 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences noted in its annual report: The resources of all countries should be considered part of an interdependent habitat, mere sources. of supply. And our national policy must therefore conform to the principles of conduct adopted by the community of nations in a common effort to protect human habitat and its resources.

Principles such as those reflected in the idea of ​​an international seed vault. It has "existence value," and while "diversity can be preserved through various means," as Fowler puts it, some means displace others not because they are better, but because they are easier to sell. A technological solution will not be enough to preserve diversity. Unlocking the ability to produce food from overly narrow socio-economic ideologies that limit what farmers grow, how they grow, and what consumers offer is an alternative, albeit difficult, political option. You can create a fork in the road that leads away from the apocalypse.

Thinking about options for the agriculture of the future was part of the mandate of the World Bank's International Assessment of Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (also known as the World Agriculture Report). There, robust solutions were recommended for the transition from degrading to sustainable agricultural practices. In theory, all technologies can contribute to this, but some are less collaborative.

A key recommendation was the adoption of more agroecological agriculture in both industrialized and developing countries. The path to this varies depending on what kind of agriculture currently dominates in a region or country. For industrialized countries, it will require a fundamental rethinking of how to set priorities for public research, explain the true costs of production, support domestic farmers without penalizing farmers in poor countries, and how to create intellectual property rights and other instruments to encourage entrepreneurship.

Seed banks can certainly play a role in this radical change by contributing to the preservation of genetic diversity. But we cannot rely on the genes of the past to grow the crops for a future soilless environment in which no current plants could grow.

Meanwhile, a key strategy for the future is in situ conservation, where genetic diversity is maintained through use, rather than storing representations of it under ice.

In situ conservation requires land. It requires workers. It may not be optimal for financial returns and this becomes even more problematic the smaller the farm. The inverse of this is what makes monocultures of staple crops successful under prevailing socio-economic ideologies.

We could find this land through a combination of new technology and social change. A first step will be to challenge the "production gap" philosophy. As described by Fowler, "Society will need at least a 50 percent increase in food production by the middle of this century to keep pace with population growth and development." That framing fits well with the Doomsday Vaults philosophy, in which technology is positioned as a way to approach a technologically framed problem. When the problem is the ability to produce, the solutions come from technologies that preserve or improve production.

However, the hypothetical future gap between what agriculture can produce and what humanity needs will never be filled by production. Unless we challenge the philosophy of the yield gap, a yield gap will always be possible. Fortunately, we have options.

Reducing waste, rather than preserving certain production thresholds, is one of the most promising. Rich countries waste huge amounts of food. In Europe it is estimated that food waste is 173 kilograms per person per year, or about 20 percent of the total amount of food. The USDA estimates that 30-40 percent of food is thrown away in the United States. Diversion of fish waste and discards to feed animals would free up equivalent crops to feed 3 billion people and support a 50 percent increase in aquaculture. Simultaneously, reducing food waste would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from production and packaging, as well as methane emissions from landfills, and significantly reduce freshwater use. And it would free up large parcels of land for in situ conservation.

Sacrifices will have to be made by those who can afford to make them. Eliminating food waste is the easiest of them. The biggest challenge is enjoying meeting our needs rather than our needs.

The science of agroecology shows enough promise to have been endorsed by the experts at the World Agriculture Report. It could happen if we invest in amounts of money and time that other biotechnologies have enjoyed for the past 40 years. At the very least it is more likely to deliver than the currently promoted key industrial biotechnologies. The combination of the relief with the agroecosystem demands won by the elimination of waste and the rehabilitation of soils, aquifers and atmosphere that agroecological practices can bring, could mean that we can have our habit and eat it too. Or at least they have enough to fill a picnic basket for our trip down a different road to the apocalypse.

* Boston Review
May 26, 2017
Boston Review

RALLT Bulletin 706


Video: Understanding Purpose - 1312021 (July 2022).


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