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Chapter Six - page 1


Modern industrial agriculture cannot be continued for very much longer because of the damage it is doing to the soil and the way it is undermining its genetic base. Community farms are part of the answer, locally-owned shops another.

There are two powerful reasons why communities should produce almost all their own food. One we discussed briefly in Chapter Two. It is that any community which depends for its survival on buying its food from the outside world has to be able to sell enough of whatever it produces year after year to the outside world to earn the money to do so. This means the community being permanently exposed to the risks involved in selling its products on extremely unstable markets in the face of fierce competition from thousands of other producers all over the globe. Moreover, because it will starve without an income, it cannot refuse to sell its goods even if the prices offered for them are ridiculously low. It also has no control over the prices it pays for the goods it needs. In other words, the exchange rate between the goods it supplies and the food and the other necessities it brings in are fixed externally and the international trading system determines the level at which the community's members live. They are dependent on, and hence at the mercy of, outside forces in the most fundamental and intractable way.

The reason few people in the industrialised world worry about being in such a powerless state is that, unless they are small farmers, the world agricultural system has operated in their favour for over a century by steadily reducing the length of time they have had to work to earn the money to buy the necessities of life. For them, at least until newspapers began to run stories with headlines like 'Droughts bring global food crisis' in the autumn of 19951, the idea that food might run short seemed ridiculous - after all, one of the EU's major problems had been controlling its agricultural surpluses. Why should anyone want to give up such an advantageous situation until events leave them no alternative?

The second argument for greater local food self-reliance provides the answer. It is that the system which has provided this apparent abundance is fundamentally unsustainable and liable to sudden, catastrophic collapse. One reason for its unsustainability is, of course, the huge amount of fossil energy the system takes to grow, pack and transport our food. According to the Swedish Food Institute, 15.8 MJ of energy is needed by the industrial system to produce, transport and sell a 1kg loaf which provides our bodies with 10 MJ when eaten2. Similarly, 1kg of frozen peas takes 22.6MJ to produce and distribute, ten times the amount of energy the peas contain. The figures for beef grown on fertilised pasture are similar: each kilo delivers 6MJ of energy when eaten but absorbs 64.2MJ of fossil energy in the course of reaching the shop. Fertilisers in fact represent about half the fossil energy required by conventional chemical agriculture3 and between five and ten per cent of the energy used in an industrial country. In Britain as long ago as 1978, transporting food to shops accounted for a further 11% of national energy use 4. Since that statistic was calculated, there has been a 50% increase in the distance food travels to reach our plates so the amount of fuel used must have grown substantially5. Putting everything together, as much as a quarter of all fossil energy could now be consumed by the food sector6.

A second reason for the system's unsustainability is the damage modern agriculture does to the soil. It used to be said that liming land enriched the father and impoverished the son. This was because making the soil less acid with lime caused a rapid breakdown of plant humus, releasing nitrogen for a few years which produced luxuriant growth. However, when the nitrogen was exhausted, crop yields dropped to well below their former levels because of the deterioration in the soil's structure and composition. Only the annual application of a lot of farmyard manure to replace the humus could prevent the soil being spoiled. Artificial fertilisers also give higher yields for a number of years before an eventual decline because, like lime, they too destroy the soil's structure and make it more liable to erosion. Indeed, in some intensively-farmed areas in southern England, 20 tonnes of topsoil is being lost per hectare per year 7, far more than if the land was farmed traditionally or by modern organic methods. This erosion is serious since according to one estimate a loss of even 12 tonnes of soil per hectare reduces yields by 8%. 8 In South East Asia, chemical farming methods are already ceasing to work: despite higher levels of fertiliser application, yields of Green Revolution rice varieties are declining by 1% year upon year 9.

These reasons for the world food system's unsustainability are widely known and just as widely ignored. However, very few people also know that the system is genetically unsustainable and might suddenly collapse, causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of people from starvation and to political, social and military consequences comparable with those of a nuclear war. Since this danger can only be minimised by community action and is unfamiliar even to many of those already involved in sustainable, low-input types of agriculture, I devote the next few pages to explaining how it arises and what can be done.

After the construction of the railways, farmers in Cornwall were able to take advantage of their milder climate to grow winter and early spring produce for markets all over Britain. One of their crops was cauliflower, and the type they grew was the Old Cornish, which had been selected into several varieties from seed brought into the county in the 1840s from Italy. Unknown to the farmers, the Old Cornish was resistant to ringspot, a fungal disease which, in Britain, is most common in Wales and southern and southwest England, and which causes brown spots on the larger leaves which eventually turn yellow and die.

In the 1940s after a breeding programme at Seale Hayne agricultural college in Devon, Sutton's Seeds and the Ministry of Agriculture introduced the growers to French cauliflower varieties and within ten years the Old Cornish cauliflowers were no longer produced because the shoppers of the day preferred the dense white curds of the French variety to the loose yellow ones of the Cornish strain. No-one held seeds of the Cornish type, the line was gone. Shortly afterwards, ringspot outbreaks were noticed and it is very much more difficult to grow satisfactory crops of cauliflowers in Cornwall today. Growers have tried to find resistant French seed but production disasters have been experienced in some parts of the county. Rotation with other crops helps reduce the problem, as does feeding the soil heavily with wood ash or another source of potassium but there is no chemical means of control.

"The new varieties caused the extinction of the best (and perhaps the only) real source of resistance to the disease - the Old Cornish cauliflowers" Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney write in their account of this tragedy in their disturbing book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity10. "We will never know what other valuable traits may have disappeared."

This story has two morals. One is that we may not have the option of switching to a sustainable, low-input, artificial pesticide-free agriculture unless we preserve the seed varieties - or at very least, the genes - which made this form of farming possible in the past. (The preservation of animal genes is equally important, as a panel further on in the chapter explains.) The other lesson is that chemicals are inadequate substitutes for natural resistance and that without genetic diversity we may well become unable to feed ourselves at all.

For thousands of years, the seeds people planted were not pure strains with little genetic variability but what are called landraces, natural assortments of seeds adapted to local conditions. As a result, although diseases or pests were present every year, only the vulnerable plants in the assortment in the field would succumb. Most of the crop would survive because of the defences the landrace had developed during hundreds of years of exposure to its enemies in agriculture and many thousands of years in the wild. Today, unfortunately, the variability which produced this security is thought undesirable. Modern growers want all their crop to look the same, taste the same and behave in the same way in the field, after harvest and in the kitchen. This means that they demand, for example, wheat seeds that produce plants that grow to the same height in the same time and are ready for harvest simultaneously. As a result, from the 1800s onwards, plant breeders have been selecting particular characteristics from amongst the multitude available in landraces and in the wild and crossing and re-crossing their selections until they arrive at a pure line, a strain which breeds true - that is, without any variability - from generation to generation.

In a field planted with a landrace, if a pest finds one plant unpalatable, it moves on to the next one which is not. There is no pressure on the pest to change. However, when thousands of acres of a pure line are planted, pests and diseases have no alternative but to adapt to overcome the various resistances the line has had bred into it. They do so remarkably quickly. In an experiment at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, brown planthoppers, the most serious rice pest in Asia, were confined in a cage with Mudgo, a hopper-resistant rice variety. Most starved to death, but some produced a second generation. By the time the tenth generation had emerged about three months later, the planthoppers were devouring Mudgo as readily as any other non-resistant rice type. Plant diseases adapt with great speed too: the first race of wheat stem rust was identified in 1917. Fifty years later, three hundred more races had appeared in response to the development of rust-resistant wheat varieties.

So in the industrial agricultural system, a desperate race is being constantly run between plant breeders and pests and millions will starve if the breeders lose. The life of a variety, Lawrence D. Hills, the founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), once said with only a slight exaggeration, has been reduced to that of a pop record. For example, Triumph, a barley bred in East Germany, quickly became one of the main varieties grown in Ireland after its introduction in 1982. By 1989, however, its resistance to diseases had been eroded and it was superceded by an English-bred variety, Blenheim, which, by 1994, was needing to be replaced in its turn. When the inbuilt resistance of a variety ceases to work, pesticides can be drafted in to help it out but the pests rapidly become resistant to those too: it was only six years after DDT was introduced that resistance to it began to appear. Indeed, scientists are worried that resistance is developing among pests faster than they can devise new pesticides and that a number of very serious pests are about to become uncontrollable.

Plant breeders go to the landraces and to the wild plants from which they were originally developed for new resistance genes to build into their strains. Unfortunately, however, the collapse of traditional agriculture throughout the world and the success of the international seed companies in promoting their new varieties has meant that very few landraces are still being planted and only then in extremely remote areas. Wheat was probably first cultivated in the Balkans or Armenia and at one time the fields from Greece to India and south to Ethiopia displayed an enormous range of genetic variations. Within the past fifty years, however, almost all those fields have been switched to uniform commercial varieties and the richness of the genetic heritage they once contained has gone.

The value of what has been lost is illustrated by a story told by one of the first people to draw attention to the loss of genetic resources, Professor Jack Harlan of the University of Illinois, who collected a wheat plant in a Turkish field in 1948. Harlan wrote years later:

It is a miserable-looking wheat, tall, thin-stemmed, lodges badly, is susceptible to leaf rust, lacks winter hardiness.... and has poor baking qualities. Understandably, no one paid any attention to it for 15 years. Suddenly, stripe rust became serious in the northwestern states and [the wheat I had collected] turned out to be resistant to four races of stripe rust, 35 races of common bunt, ten races of dwarf bunt and to have good tolerance to flag smut and snow mould.11

Today, genes from that miserable-looking wheat are used in every programme to breed wheat for the northwest of the US and have saved the farmers there from losses running to millions of dollars.

No-one knows what potentially valuable genes have been lost with the landraces. True, not all the genetic material they contained has gone because, in part due to Harlan's warnings, concerned scientists set up the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in 1972 to collect varieties and landraces of commercially-important food plants and store them in gene banks. Over 110,000 wheat varieties and landraces and 12,500 wild wheats are preserved at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico and similar collections exist for, amongst others, potatoes, barley, maize, sorghum, rice, groundnuts, okra, cowpeas, sweet potato and beans. But just what proportion of the original diversity these collections contain is an unanswerable question. Moreover, while the collections of internationally important crops are incomplete, plants of regional and local importance are still largely uncollected and ignored. Amongst these are twenty different oilseed crops grown in East Africa which are almost unknown in the outside world and only a last-minute rescue by the Peruvian government saved varieties of Andean crops such as Chenopodium quinoa and Chenopodium pallidicaule and tubers and root crops including Canna edulis from passing into oblivion.

Just because genetic material has been collected does not mean it is safe. Far from it. The world rice collection is kept under refrigeration by IRRI in an impressive building not too far from two active volcanoes, one of them Mount Pinatubo, and right in the centre of an earthquake zone. Fowler and Mooney describe visiting the international centre responsible for the storage of sorghum and millet at Hyderabad in India to find the refrigeration system broken and shirt-sleeved workmen tinkering with pipes and mopping up water in vaults where seed librarians normally had to dress to cope with a temperature of minus twenty degrees Celsius. There have been many such incidents. For example, within the past few years a major collection of Peruvian maize was ruined when the refrigeration failed, 500 varieties of American cassava were lost in transit from one collection to another and in November 1988, a band of Shining Path guerrillas raided the International Potato Centre at Huancayo in the Peruvian Andes where over 4,500 varieties of potatoes are preserved by being planted out and harvested each year. The raiders intended to kill the scientists who maintained the collection and shot the head of security but, fortunately, the scientists were away in Lima where, concerned for their lives, they stayed for several months. The US National Seed Storage Laboratory at Fort Collins in Colorado, is sited between a nuclear reactor and a munitions factory. It is possibly the most important gene bank in the world but in the early 1980s was a total shambles, its cold stores liable to power failures and its seeds stacked in cardboard cartons and sacks on the floor. Worse, its staff were drying samples to prepare them for storage at 36 or 38 degrees Celsius rather than the 15 degrees recommended. There is no evidence of any great improvement since then. In November 1994, Henry Shands of the US Department of Agriculture Research Service wrote that a quarter of the collection was not available to researchers, possibly because the items could not be found12. Another quarter had less than 65% viability and there was a 20-year backlog in the programme of growing varieties outside to re-generate them. "Gene banks are as prone to failure as their financial counterparts" Fowler and Mooney comment, "but their losses cannot be overcome by a printing press."

These horror stories should not be interpreted as an attack on the gene banks but a plea for many more of them, so that if one is destroyed nothing of consequence is lost. Unfortunately, however, there are more fundamental problems with storing varieties in gene banks than running them properly and keeping them secure. One is that in the outside world, the pests and diseases are continuing to adapt and change but the seeds, deep in their cold rooms, are no longer developing and throwing up new variations. They have been withdrawn from the race which they have been running against their enemies since the dawn of time. Consequently, if we rely on the banks exclusively we are bound to find some time in the future that the pests and diseases have developed a feature which our crops cannot resist because we have not given them the chance to evolve to do so.

A second problem is that seed can only be stored in a gene bank for so long before it dies, the actual time varying from crop to crop and the temperature at which the seed is stored. Accordingly, when an arbitary proportion - usually 15% - of a sample in a gene bank has ceased to germinate, the rest is taken out and regenerated by being planted and the seeds it produces placed back in the store. There are two snags with this procedure, however. One is that the seeds which have died cannot be assumed to be genetically identical with those which successfully germinated in the regeneration plot. Some genetic information has inevitably been lost. The other is that 'genetic drift' takes place whenever a sample is planted and grown because of the different responses the plants show to disease, insects, weather and soil while they are growing. To demonstrate this Dr. Eric Roos, a plant physiologist at Fort Collins, took equal numbers of eight different bean varieties and ran them through fifteen cycles of aging and regeneration. By the end of the experiment, six of the varieties had become extinct. Seed librarians therefore face an acute dilemma. If they keep seeds for a long time so that only a small percentage germinate when they are regenerated, they will have lost the genetic material of those which died. If, on the other hand, they regenerate frequently to prevent these losses, other genes will disappear in the regeneration process itself. In other words, whatever they do, the librarians will be left with strains of seeds adapted to survive in gene banks but lacking many of the characteristics originally collected in the outside world.

Fowler and Mooney draw the obvious conclusion from this: that genetic diversity cannot be saved by seed banks alone and that their efforts need to be supplemented by community action. Diversity, they say, can only be saved with a diversity of ways: "No one strategy could hope to preserve and protect what it took so many human cultures, farming systems and environments so long to produce.... Diversity, like music or a dialect, is part of the community that produced it. It cannot exist for long without that community and the circumstances that gave rise to it. Saving farmers is a prerequisite of saving diversity. Conversely, communities must save their agricultural diversity in order to retain their own options for development and self-reliance. Someone else's seeds imply someone else's needs". They also believe that diversity will not be saved unless it is actually being used: "Only in use can diversity be appreciated enough to be saved. And only in use can it continue to evolve, thus retaining its value....The need for diversity is never-ending. Therefore, our efforts to preserve this diversity can never cease....No technology can relieve us of the responsibility to preserve agricultural diversity for ourselves and all future generations."

What does this mean? Quite simply, that communities need to grow their food using seed they have saved themselves because only in this way can their crops adapt to local conditions and have some chance of developing resistance to whatever tricks the diseases and pests develop. In short, landraces are in. Pure lines and F1 hybrids - seeds resulting from the first cross between two very different strains which produce vigorous, identical plants whose seed cannot be satisfactorily saved - are out.

Some growers in the British Isles still save their own seed but many more were doing so until quite recently. In 1982 R.F. Murphy of the Kinsealy Research Station near Dublin began collecting the self-saved seeds which Irish farmers were using to plant crops in the cabbage/turnip family but by the time he came to write his report two years later, 40% of growers who had been saving seed when he started had ceased to do so and he reckoned that all but a small fraction of the diversity which had been present in the past had been lost. "We were right on the edge" he says13. He was, however, in time to rescue some interesting and potentially valuable plants from extinction. These included a unique cabbage from the Glen of Aherlow called 'Cut and Come' which, as it has several stems, looks rather like a wallflower. It can be harvested over a long period for spring greens, and, as its name indicates, will put out new stems after being cut the first time. In the West of Ireland he found several landraces of a fodder cabbage known as Flat Dutch whose seeds had been saved by families for over a century. These landraces had the advantage over the usual Dutch cabbage of being able to be sown in late summer, overwintered and planted out the following April without risk of bolting. Bundles of these cabbages can still be seen in West of Ireland towns at springtime displayed in the street for farmers to buy.

Murphy's seeds are now housed in the vegetable gene bank at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire where the world's main collections of radish, carrot, onion and brassica seeds are held. Dr. David Astley, the bank's manager, accepts that change and genetic drift are inevitable when seeds are stored and regenerated by institutions such as his. "The gene bank stock will come to differ from that outside. This makes re-collection necessary after a period of between ten and twenty-five years" he told me 14. But re-collection is only possible if the material is still there - in other words, if the seeds are still being used by farmers - and in most cases they are not. Wellesbourne was set up in 1980 as a result of a special Oxfam appeal and in 1983-84 it sent staff to collect cauliflower seeds used by growers in Italy where some authorities think the crop was first developed - Syria is another possibility - and it certainly displayed a great deal of diversity.

In 1993, ten years later, Astley sent a PhD student back to see what had changed. "A large proportion of the variability had gone" he says. This was largely because agriculture had become more commercialised and the reduced number of people still involved in farming needed to produce crops acceptable to supermarkets and other customers longer distances away. "I'm told, however, that there are still landraces to be found well off the beaten track" he says. "If we wish to preserve the use of landraces in the areas they developed, it has to be in a system which develops good local seed production with quality control and where the landrace products are acceptable within a market economy. Such a system would need to be linked to research into the complexities of landraces and the farming systems which produce them."

Page 2 of Chapter 6

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