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Barnyard Biodiversity, Heirloom Crops and the Future
Alex Steffen, 8 Aug 07
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Our ancestors practiced a sort of genetic engineering through millennia of selective breeding of plants and animals, cultivating thousands of species and creating hundreds of thousands of distinct varieties.

That barnyard biodiversity has been getting hammered for a couple centuries now, but in the last forty years, the onslaught has become intense, as government subsidies, international trade pressures and corporate self-interest have combined to make our fields and farms increasingly sterile places, genetically, where the locally-adapted, distinct varieties that once made up a successful farming community are replaced by fewer and fewer often genetically-indentical species. As a result, many of those rare breeds and heirloom varieties have gone extinct. This is the biodiversity crisis we often forget about.

But that may be changing. Beyond those who advocate for replacing our "shrinking food basket" with a wider variety of traditional crops grown in traditional ways, there is increasing recognition that a smart breeding approach to reconceptualizing agriculture will demand access not only to as wide a variety of genetically-distinct crops as possible, but also their wild cousins.

We write a lot about food issues here on Worldchanging. And we track a lot of stories about agricultural biodiversity.

One great resource for doing that is the Swedish-based Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, which I recently added to my blog diet. Many of the stories you'll find there have been written up elsewhere (often on Worldchanging), but I don't know of any other news-aggregator-style blog that covers the subject so well. If you're into this subject, you should be reading it.

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Thanks for the link.

Can't find a link to a web story about it, but I heard a report on the World Service today about massive crop failures in eastern Europe due to the heatwave. Apparently maize has been very badly hit - ah, here's a story related to it. I think some countries that usually export half their crop may have to import, such are the losses.

The programme spoke to one of the few "mixed" farmers, who had salvaged something by harvesting early and turning his failed maize into silage for his animals. Of course all the subsidies go to large monoculture farms - but that might change soon, as the wisdom of agricultural diversity is seen close-up under the lens of disaster.

Posted by: Gyrus on 8 Aug 07

Excellent to recognize and promote the importance of agricultural biodiversity but it's an artifact of selective breeding and indigenous knowledge systems and has nothing to do with genetic engineering. Industry would love to have us believe that modern genetic engineering is nothing but an extension of age-old practices when that is patently untrue. Thanks for the post.

Posted by: James on 8 Aug 07

Hey Alex! Thanks for the link. We like World Changing too!

I have to agree with James here. What 10,000 years of farmers did was not genetic engineering any way you slice it. Not unless you want to devalue the word completely (which, funnily enough, one of the other posts we linked to yesterday did too).

I think we should recognize that the reason we call it engineering is because it involves a deliberate plan, with a stated goal, and direct manipulation of the DNA. Let's reserve the term for that.

People have also tried to extend the meaning of biotechnology back a few thouand years to encompass bread and beer making. That's a little harder to disagree with, but it alarms me when, for example, a study that proclaims that "biotechnology brings benefits for small farmers" turns out to refer to tissue culture for creating healthy plants. It's biotechnology, I suppose, but not as we know it.

Having said which, I should also state that I am not against the fruits of either biotechnology or genetic engineering on principle.

Posted by: Jeremy on 8 Aug 07



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