A Knot of Dread in my Belly

I am a rural creature at heart. I am happiest in natural surroundings, but since I’m not currently equipped to live out of a cave, the next best thing for me is to be surrounded by farmer’s fields. It helps me relax and feel that all is right in the world.

Unfortunately, over my life, this simple pleasure has become complicated with feelings of increasing unease. While I find endless fields of flowing wheat, all golden and the exact some height, artistically pleasing… they make me nervous. The drive home to my house started off as a mixed drive past corn, potato, pigs, alfalfa, mustard, cows, barley, peppers, chickens, and more. The year I moved away, the fields were corn, corn, soybeans, Roundup-scorched fallow, soybeans, corn, cows, Roundup-scorched fallow. As the variety of species declined, my sense of dread grew. The most of the corn wasn’t even corn for the local markets, it was cattle feed. Instead of 50 kilometres of dietary variety, all I had left was a repetitive dietary wasteland.

Did you know that if you tried to survive on a diet of nothing but corn you’d soon die of malnutrition, initially succumbing to diarrhea and mental deficiencies, depression, skin lesions and over a longer period of time, developing full-blown pellagra? Corn lacks three amino acids crucial for the human cells to process energy (niacin, tryptophan and lysine).  If you don’t eat corn with beans or use an alkali process that locks in tryptophan and lysine acids, which in turn allowed the body to make niacin, bad things happen.

My ideal farmer’s field is a jumbled-up mess. Eventually, I’m going to post about the Three Sisters, forest gardens, the beauty of seeds, and the horrors of a monoculture. It’s pretty much a guarantee, because I circle back to these topics over and over again every year. For now, let’s sum it up this way: variety is not only the spice of life, it is quite literally the key to survival. I have seen those keys handed over to two seed companies and an industrialized farming process and it has left me nervous about our future.

Before you wax poetical about a seed vault, Kirsten, maybe you could explain why we need a seed vault?

Normally, I like to have lists of three, but humans have charted a course so disastrous that I’m okay just talking about TWO root causes:

  1. The industrialization of food production has dramatically reduced the number of species of plants that feed our world; and
  2. Climate change is creating increasingly frequent events that may cause local food species to go extinct and/or create a need for a previously archived species (disease or drought resistance).

Let’s do the math.

Historically, we had a vast array of plants that we used to feed ourselves and and our herd animals. In just a half century, the span of my life, our food landscape has become almost unrecognizable to my grandparents. We are currently down to 30 crops that provide 95% of our food energy needs. Take rice for example: today, China uses 10% of the number of rice varieties that they used to grow. That’s 90% of the variety thrown out. Each one had a different taste, texture, and nutritional profile. They grew in a much wider variety of conditions. In the United States, they have abandoned over 90% of their fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s.

More than 40 percent of our daily calories come from three staple crops: rice, wheat and maize.
– Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations

Why is this happening? It’s easier to grow a giant field of a single seed than a bunch of tiny plots of all different plants. You can use large scale machinery to make it faster and easier to plant, maintain, and harvest. You narrow down the seed selection to the the hardiest varieties that grow the most volume, even to the point of reducing dietary value and taste. It’s all about efficiency.

Unfortunately, efficiency (measured the way mono-croppers do) is the enemy of diversity. In our search for the fastest, easiest, most repeatable crops we have thrown away millions of years of evolution in food plants that might be desirable if conditions change. If it gets hotter, colder, wetter, drier, or soil became more acidic or basic, all of  sudden the seeds we are using might not grow successfully. We’ve traded away all of those options for coping with changes to our ecology against some short term gain. We’ve traded away flavour and taste and a richness of dietary input for predictability.

These decisions could very well come back to haunt us.

The Seed Vault

Seed vaults are giant safety deposit boxes that store agricultural diversity. Humans have a solid 13,000 years of agricultural experience, nursing plants into a a constantly expanding range of varieties. Seeds are stored in vacuum-packed silver packets and test tubes in large boxes that are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. While they might not be worth much in terms of dollars, any one of these seeds could be the solution to a drought in Syria, a flood in Alabama, charred soil in a war zone. There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day. Genetic material is being lost all over the globe. These seeds are the keys to the future of global food security.

The picture in the header of this blog post is the Global Seed Vault located on Spitsbergen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It is one of about 1,700 similar vaults, called gene banks, all over the world. For the seed vault’s 10th anniversary on February 2018, a shipment of 70,000 samples was delivered to the facility, bringing the number of samples received to more than one million, representing over 13,000 years of agricultural history.

Further Reading

If I’ve sparked a bit of interest in the concept of seed vaults, I encourage you to follow some of the links below to learn more.