To preserve genetic diversity we must engage in both conservation and politics. As the only species powerful to affect all evolution on the planet, humanity has this responsibility.
Acceptance speech – Cary Fowler
Something strange and wonderful began to happen 12000 years ago. People began to make the transition from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers. They began to plant and care for the seeds they once gathered. Thus our Stone Age ancestors–mostly the women–initiated the process of domesticating the plants that would become the crops we depend on today.
Virtually all of our major food crops originated in the Third World: wheat and barley in the Near East; soybeans and rice in China; sorghum and yams in Africa; maize, potatoes and tomatoes in Latin America.
Over the last 12000 years these crops have had to adapt to countless environmental conditions–different soils and climates, pests and diseases. Barley, for example, had to adapt not only to growing in Ethiopia, but to growing in Sweden. The result of this history has been thousands of distinct varieties of barley, wheat, rice, maize and other crops–each genetically distinct, each adapted to a certain set of conditions. This diversity found mainly in the Third World is the legacy of the past l2000 years. These are the genetic resources that constitute the very foundation of agriculture.
It is customary and appropriate when receiving an award such as this to thank one’s family, close friends and colleagues. Pat and I wish to do that. Without their help we could have done very little. And we must recognize the work of some of the great pioneering scientists in this field: N.I. Vavilov, Jack Harlan, Erna Bennett, and T.T. Chang. Our modest achievements would look small if compared to theirs. But most of all we recognize the achievements of millions of anonymous people–your ancestors and mine who created the genetic diversity that gives life to agriculture and to us.
But this genetic diversity is being lost. The foundation of agriculture is shattering. New varieties are replacing traditional varieties. And the traditional varieties are becoming extinct. The same process is underway with livestock breeds. In the United States we cultivated over 7000 named varieties of apples in the last century. Over 85%–more than 6000 are now extinct. When I give lectures back home I often pass out a list of these extinct apples and I say look for your family names on this list. It was your ancestors that developed these varieties and often they gave them the highest honor they could–they gave them their names. Two-thirds of an audience in the U.S. will find family names on this list of extinct apple varieties. It is a powerful testament to the loss of our own history and (culture as well as to the loss of characteristics and qualities that will never be seen again. Increasingly this loss of diversity means that we are losing not just the actors in this drama, but some of the roles as well.
When we talk about traditional varieties and rare breeds disappearing we are really talking about extinction–the permanent loss of genes–sometimes the very genes plant or animal breeders need now or may need a hundred years from now to rescue a crop from a disease or adapt the crop to new human needs. The loss of genetic diversity limits the evolution and development of agricultural crops. It narrows and eliminates options for the future.
In the 1840’s a terrible potato blight struck Ireland. None of the potatoes that had found their way from their homeland in the Andes Mountains to Ireland were resistant to the blight. The potatoes died and so did over a million people. Over a million more emigrated to the New World, including Pat’s ancestors and mine. Fortunately, resistance to this blight still existed damongst the potatoes in the Andes. If it did not, we would not he able to eat potatoes today. The crop simply would not exist. But if another blight suddenly and unexpectedly strikes potatoes, will we find the needed diversity in the Andes this time? If we have to go back to the Near East in order to save wheat from a similar fate, what will we find?
These are not theoretical questions. In recent years barley and rice have been saved by finding just the primitive variety that had the needed resistance. Tomatoes, sugarcane and tobacco have been salvaged as crops by using genes from their wild relatives. We have come very close to major catastrophes. We may in fact be experiencing such catastrophes now with the coffee crop in Latin America, with citrus canker in the U.S. and with African Swine Fever.
Naturally we in industrialized countries talk of the need to preserve genetic diversity for its possible benefit to out own crops. Our scientists say we will need certain qualities–disease resistance or drought tolerance–some day. But that day has already arrived in much of the Third World where farmers cannot afford the imported fertilizers and pesticides to put on modern varieties, or the fancy confinement barns some modern hog breeds require. In the Third World millions of lives depend not just on the yield of the crops but on the reliability of that yield. The tragic situation of Ethiopia bears witness to that fact. Ethiopia is officially the poorest country in the world. It will not be able to feed its people using crops varieties that require steady supplies of water or expensive imported fertilizers and pesticides. In fact, the use of such varieties in Ethiopia has killed people. Instead, Ethiopia will have to depend on crops adapted to the harsh conditions found in Ethiopia–the prerequisite of this is saving Ethiopia’s wealth of genetic resources. If these resources are lost, building a sustainable, self-reliant system of agriculture in Ethiopia will be nearly impossible. And Ethiopia’s famine will be a permanent famine.
When traditional varieties become extinct, communities lost a bit of their history and culture. The plant species loses a bit of its gene pool. Future generations lose some of their options and the present generation forfeits its self-reliant. The type of seed sown to a large extent determines the farmer’s need for fertilizers and pesticides. It influences the need for machinery and often dictates the market for the crop… and the ultimate consumer. Communities that lose traditional varieties adapted over centuries to their needs, lose control and become dependent–forever–on outside sources of seeds and the chemicals needed to grow and protect them. Without an agricultural system adapted to a community and its environment, self-reliance in agriculture is impossible. Saving agriculture’s diversity does not guarantee self-reliance or development. But losing this diversity does narrow the options and foster dependency.
Since the days of Vavilov in the Soviet Union, massive collections of crop genetic diversity inform of seeds have been assembled and placed in gene banks for preservation. But the promise of gene banks–to preserve genetic diversity-may never be fulfilled. Despite the dedication and hard work of scientists involved, large collections have been and are being lost. As Jack Harlan has said, if we are willing to entrust the fate of mankind to these collections, we are living in a fool’s paradise.
Extinction is a process, not simply an event that occurs when the last individual of a species dies. Extinction is a process that happens as a plant or animal species loses the ability to evolve. Therefore, conservation of plants and animals implies retaining the ability to evolve. And that means saving the stuff that makes evolution and change possible-genetic diversity.
Increasingly we are drawn to the conclusion that if genetic diversity is to be saved it will be saved by the people who created it in the first place–the world’s farmers and gardeners. Their interest in and love of this diversity will last longer than governments themselves. In their fields the agricultural legacy of thousands of years can continue to co-evolve with environment.
To governments we say–recognize the importance of individual action. Encourage it. Work with it. Understand that the best system for conserving genetic resources includes both gene banks and farmers.
And to individuals we say–recognize that the job is big and costly and that we will not be successful if we do not convince our governments to participate actively and constructively in genetic conservation work.
To preserve genetic diversity we must engage in both conservation and politics. As the only species ever powerful enough to affect all evolution on this planet, this is our responsibility. If we fail the genetic heritage of 12000 years will disappear in the next 12.
Agriculture is 12000 years old, but in human history it is a recent development. Ninety percent of all human beings that ever lived on earth were hunters and gatherers. Only 6% have been farmers.
Mark Twain once said something that I think helps tie this history to the present crisis involving genetic diversity. He said that the first rule of successful tinkering is to save all the pieces. When it comes to agriculture, our history makes us just tinkerers, not experts. If we are to be successful tinkerers, we must become the people who save all the pieces. The fact that pieces are beginning to disappear, or – as Cary says – that actors and whole roles in the agricultural pageant have begun to vanish, first became apparent and a problem for the industrialized countries.
Europe and North America had their green revolution much earlier in this century. The old seeds have almost all been replaced by new high-response varieties. Northern scientists, aware that the genes are the first link in the food chain – and that the collection and conservation of crop diversity is a matter of vital national security, have launched hundreds of collection loans in the fields of Asia, Africa and Latin America. As a result, more than two-thirds of collected genetic diversity is stored in gene banks in Europe and North America. In a handful of seedy Fort Knoxes in the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and Italy and a few other countries are stored the world, most valuable raw material.
Yet it is a raw material unlike any other in the world. It has not been bought. It has been donated. It has been donated by the poor to the rich. The donation has been made under a noble banner proclaiming that genetic resources form a part of the common heritage of all humanity and, thus, can be owned by no one.
But as the primary building block of agriculture, genes have incalculable political and economic importance. Industrialized governments – often overruling the intentions of their scientists – hove come to hoard germplasm and to stock seeds as part of the arsenal of international power diplomacy. Private companies in the North – although glad to receive free genes – are loath to divulge or share the adaptations they draw from these donations.
The issue has arisen at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization where Third World countries have questioned the logic of the flow of their botanical treasures to the North, and have challenged the economic sense of volunteering profits to private interests. You will remember the debate over the Law of the Sea where the world said that the seabed should he the common heritage of all humanity and some countries in the North said, “no, let’s see who gets there first.” Now these northern states looking into the fields and forests of the south are saying that this raw material should be uniquely the common heritage of all humanity.
The last few years the gene donor countries in the South have had increased cause for concern. During the grain embargo of the Soviet Union, Canada and the United States also instituted a gene embargo. Last year a Sino-American trade dispute led to a disruption of germplasm exchanges between those countries. Also last year an effort was made to exclude socialist countries of southern Africa from benefiting from a sorghum and millet germplasm development program in the region. This year a trade embargo of Nicaragua also includes a gene embargo including the seed which Nicaraguan farmers have donated and entrusted for safe-keeping in the North. This is not just. This is not Right Livelihood.
It is not surprising that the control of a scarce resource has become politicized. In fact it is more surprising that those countries that have absorbed the lion’s share of collected diversity now claim that there is no political problem.
Neither is it surprising that the implications of genetic, wipe-out have attracted considerable commercial interest. More than a decade ago international chemical companies observed that the green revolution showed that it is possible to market a single crop variety over thousands of kilometers of laud and that with the help of foreign aid and government subsidies poor farmers could be an easy market for expensive seed. Chemical companies also noted the potential value of Third World genes as the cornerstone of genetic engineering and they applauded the opportunity to obtain exclusive monopoly control over seeds through national patent legislation. In the dozen years since, more than 900 family seed companies have become controlled or taken over by major enterprises. The largest seed company in the world today is Shell Oil. Among the others are: Ciba-Geigy of Switzerland, Elf-Aquitaine of France, Hoechst of Germany, Occidental Petroleum of the U.S., and Cardo of Sweden.
We are concerned that most of these companies are also crop chemical manufacturers. With new developments in biotechnology it is now less expensive to adapt the seed to the chemical than to design new chemicals for the seed. The thrust of corporate research is now on creating genetically uniform and patentable seeds that can be the conduit for one or more chemicals –and to engineer seeds that will tolerate spraying by otherwise toxic herbicides. In the North such trends mean increased costs, additional risks to the farmer and the environment and more chemical residues for the consumer. In the South–the largest and easiest market–increased risk means starvation. This year in Ethiopia one international chemical company came to the homeland of sorghum offering to sell a hybrid sorghum seed drawn from the seeds donated by Ethiopian farmers. This hybrid seed which farmers could never save for another year and which would create an annual dependence on the company for new seed was to come coated in chemicals intended to make the seed amenable to the company’s leading herbicides. This is not just. This is not Right Livelihood.
What has been generously by the South is becoming private property in the North. It is unacceptable to argue that the work and human genius involved in developing new crop seeds in industrialized countries constitutes intellectual property while the labor and genius of 500 generations of dedicated farmers in the Third World is either dumb luck or an act of God. This is not just. This must be changed.
Cary and I have been working on these problems with Third World countries for some time now. The Third World has developed its own solutions, however, in order to truly ensure that the first link in the food chain–the seeds and genes–are shared by all humanity. One of these solutions is to ask the governments of the world to place their gene banks under the auspices of the United Nations thus ensuring that the seeds inside will be available to every nation regardless of their transient political differences. Spain and Costa Rica have already agreed to do this. We hope that the Nordic countries–who already have and international gene bank here in Sweden which they share together could also place this gene bank under the flag of the United Nations.
Secondly, developing countries have also called for the creation of a multi-million dollar world gene fund under United Nations control which would allow for the conservation and development of the South’s genetic heritage in the South. We hope that industrialized countries will see the justice and practicality of this proposal and support the fund.
From Nicaragua to Ethiopia to China there is recognition that a new and larger strategy is needed to secure our future food supply. We have learned four lessons over the years and you will not be surprised to hear that the laws of nature and good science continue to go hand in hand with the laws of justice. One, we have learned that diversity can only be protected through a diversity of means and as Cary has already said, government gene banks must be regarded as a back-up to living collections and community seed banks. Two, we have learned that what is important to save depends on who we ask. Governments talk only to scientists about major crops. At the community level, Genetic conservation means working with the women who garden and gather food, the herbalists who make medicines, the woodcutters and carpenters, the fisher folk and farmers, all of whom use plants and value diversity. Three,we have learned that diversity must be used if it is to be prized and preserved and that agricultural research today must redress the omissions of most of this century and work hand in hand with farmers in the labor jury offered by hundreds of thousands of fields and cultures. Four, we have learned that we cannot save the seed unless we also save the farmer and the reverse is also true. The diversity of agriculture and human culture are bound together. In the end it is up to all of us as governments and communities and individuals to prize diversity. We must not shatter the first link in the food chain. The prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread… ” must not become a prayer to Shell Oil or any country!
Cary Fowler, Ph.D.
Global Crop Diversity Trust
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