Our Mass Plant Extinction

A chilling fact: over the past century, the Earth has lost 3/4 of its agricultural genetic diversity.

Delphine Caubet | File Environment

From wildflowers to varieties of trees and grasses, the development of once pristine land engenders the loss of many wild species forever; the choices of agribusiness favor a few lab-enhanced varieties, leaving most of the planet’s plants aside.

A mass-extinction of flora, rivaling what’s going on in the animal kingdom, is slipping by, nearly unnoticed.

The transition from subsistence farming to agribusiness has given giant food producers the impetus to select “good genes” over “bad.” The result: we’ve lost entire species of plant life forever. The accent is on production, in bulk quantities. For that to happen, the race is on to produce the most efficient varieties of seed possible. Laboratories across the globe work tirelessly to find the “supergene” that will result in bumper crops.


For example, take the “super-tomato.” A lab will select the most productive plant genes, the most blight-resistant genes, the genes that produce the reddest tomato… A winner seed variety has to be able to take root and grow in a wide variety of soils and climates. Which means that farmers in Canada, the U.S., Europe, South America and beyond will end up growing exactly the same type of tomato sold the same way everywhere.

Canada’s agricultural sector works the same way. Focused on a few crops (corn, soy, canola, wheat, apples, etc.) farmers have to produce as much as possible. The whole economy depends on it. There are more than 7 billion mouths to feed, after all. Government regulation means farmers are never free to choose any seed they want.

This worries Lyne Bellemare. She’s coordinator of the francophone section of Semences du patrimoine, (Seed Heritage) an organization dedicated to preserving agricultural biodiversity. “If we only grow one variety of a plant and it’s attacked by a plant disease, we could lose the whole species,” she says. “Preserving biodiversity means assuring our survival. Disease-resistant growing plants will engender descendants that are hardier, and immunized to microorganisms.”
By limiting genetic choices to super-gene varieties that stand up well in the lab, we’re courting mass extinction. There is no guarantee that these genetically­ modified plants will be able to stand up to future bio-threats. And by leaving other varieties aside, we lose the use of plants that may be able to feed us in future.

Gene Banks

Indeed, 90% of the genetic plant varieties still around today aren’t grown, according to Semences du patrimoine. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): “Only 12 vegetable species and 14 animal species are vital to feed the planet, whereas in the past 10,000 species were cultivated for food.”

Faced with this dire situation, several countries have built up genetic plant material reserves. These “gene banks” freeze and store samples of rare and extinct plant varieties in the form of seeds, but also as whole plants, pollen, and cell cultures. There are now 3 of these gene banks in Canada.

Saskatoon’s gene bank stores 113,000 plant varieties, specializing in the Brassicaceae family (cabbage, turnip, canola, horseradish, mustard, broccoli… ).
Lyne Bellemare explains: “If a cataclysm ever hits, at least we’ll have access to a back-up supply. But if we bring these seeds out and plant them 100 years from now, they’ll no longer be adapted to the soil conditions of the time.” In concrete terms, freezing seeds is one option. But continuing to grow these varieties is a far better option.

Some loss of biodiversity is considered normal. But the massive loss of 75% of the world’s plant varieties is worrisome, say the experts.

To see the original French version of this article, please click here

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