Resilience: Being able to recover from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, or illness.
Pursuit of resilience is why we are advised against placing all our eggs in one basket, why we diversify portfolios and, in agriculture, why biodiversity is so important. Agricultural biodiversity is the variety of separate strains of food crops we are planting and harvesting. It may be under siege, and with it the resilience of our food supply.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. Similarly, between December 1999 and January 2006, one breed of livestock went extinct per month. Both of these statistics represent an unsustainable rate of biodiversity degradation, putting our food supply at risk.
The panic surrounding biodiversity centers around the loss of older strains of crops, fretting over loss of genetic characteristics potentially resistant to future scourges.
The more prevalent a specific strain or species of crop becomes, the more susceptible our food is to destruction by a single parasite. That’s what happened before the Irish Potato Famine. The potato originated in South America where the Incans grew hundreds of varieties, preserving biodiversity. However, when it was transported across the Atlantic and cultivated in Ireland the potato was narrowed to a single strain. In 1845 an airborne spore came across the ocean with the latest potatoes and devastated the Irish potato crop for three years. In the aftermath of this destruction, 1 million people starved to death (1 out of 8 Irish), millions more emigrated, and everyone else ate things like grass to survive.
One buffer against this kind of catastrophe already in place is the protection of seed varieties in what are known as seed vaults. In recent decades significant progress has been made on this front—genebanks worldwide have increased their collections by approximately 20% since 1996, reaching 7.4 million. It’s one step, but as we increase global food production to feed the coming 9 billion, we need to take others to make sure more food does not come at the cost of secure food.
What about you? Are you worried about biodiversity loss if we are still producing new species, if we can simply genetically engineer new species? Is biodiversity is less relevant if we have a better control of nature? Check out our infographic and then join the discussion – should we focus on maintaining robust biodiversity or reducing the threats to the few plant varieties we rely on?