Many varieties of fruit, meat and vegetable are disappearing from our plates, says Rachel Nuwer. Why is this happening, and can we stop the rot?
Originally reported on in 2014 by BBC Future, the story paints a grim picture of one possible route that mankind is headed down.
The story begins with a mountain in Svalbard – a remote Norwegian archipelago located near the North Pole – where a special project has been operating since 2008. It’s called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and therein lies the seeds of over 825,000 crop plants; and that number rises yearly.
Created as a safeguard against the plants’ extinction – many of them essential foods. In principle, these crops could prevent humanity’s demise should a global catastrophe occur.
Furthermore, due to the cold temperatures within the mountain, the vault’s electricity could fail for decades before the seeds perish.
The seeds come from all over – the US, Russia, North Korea and beyond – with no regard for political boundaries.
“The seeds are all getting along fine, there’s been no fighting yet,” joked Cary Fowler back in a 2014 interview with the BBC. She’s an agriculturalist and plant enthusiast and one of the people that helped design the seed vault.
“I think it would be difficult to tell the history of human kind without reference to what’s in that room,” Fowler continues. “These varieties are survivors, they are the ones our ancestors deemed worthy of saving.”
But, how does this relate to Bananas?
Well, not all things we eat have been so well preserved. Compared to historic records, 86 percent of apple varieties grown in the US alone are gone. Old Cornish cauliflowers are extinct, as is the Ansault pear, which, according to the BBC, pear experts back in the 19th Century described as having a “deliciously buttery flavor.”
And the trickling away of diversity doesn’t stop with plants. In North America, for example, an abundance of cattle varieties used to be raised. Today, a single breed – Holstein Friesians – account for 90% of dairy cattle raised in the US, and another 4 percent are Jersey cattle.
But, it isn’t isolated to just the US. The 2014 report found that around 20 percent of the world’s 8,000 livestock breeds – which include a dozen animals ranging from cows to sheep to ducks to rabbits – are in danger of extinction.
The problem is: the arguments for preserving food diversity overlap with those for preserving ecological diversity in the wild.
The planet is in a constant state of flux. If you believe the data, the climate is warming and weather patterns are shifting. Plants, too, will need to change in order to keep up.
But, domesticated crops are at an exceptional disadvantage. Their evolution is largely in our hands, and we’ve tailored them toward profit-favoring traits such as high yield and durability rather than adaptability.
“When a new pest, disease or drought comes, do you want a crop that is pest and disease resistant and drought tolerant, or do you want to just put more chemicals on crops and increase irrigation?” Fowler poses. “The choice seems pretty clear to me.”
“Diversity,” he continues, “is the most effective, easiest, cheapest and most sustainable way to help agriculture adapt to change.”
Well, even though it is just a small part of the story, I guess we ought to tell you since we teased it and all…
If you’ve ever spoken with your grandparents, even for just a few minutes, you may remember them saying such things as, “they tasted better,” and, “they lasted longer,” and you would be forgiven for dismissing their attentiveness as crabbiness.
They were, in fact, a better fruit at one time because they belonged to a different “species.”
It was called Gros Michel and it remained the world’s export banana until 1965 when it was declared commercially extinct due to the Panama disease. It nearly whiped out the banana as a world produce and it appears to be happening again with a new disease out of Africa.
One particular case, a plantation in Mozambique, is losing 15,000 plants per week, translating to $236,000 per week.
The disease isn’t necessarily more virulent than the one that killed the Gros Michel, but it’s spreading because the “bad practices” from 50 years ago are still in place.
“The banana industry is in denial about this, and standard agricultural quarantines like fencing the crops and cleaning the equipment are not enough,” said Dan Koeppel, author of the book Banana: The fate of the fruit that changed the world.
The only solution, according to “experts,” would be to burn the plantation down and start over, but with a different crop. Restarting with bananas doesn’t work because the fungus stays in the soil.
The good news: If nuclear or climatic disaster ever strikes, the Svalbard vault will be ready to reseed the world with life-supporting crops.