By Agustin Zsögon
VICOSA, July 6 – The ongoing armed conflict in Eastern Europe is shaking the fragile foundations of the global food system.
Two-thirds of our caloric intake comes from just three cereal species: rice, corn and wheat. With Ukraine and Russia among the world’s largest exporters corn and wheat, global food security is under the threat.
Even if this volatile situation is resolved and trade is restored, an overreliance on so few species remains the Achilles heel of food security in the face of climate change.
The negative effect of climate on food systems is not new.
In 6400 BC. AD, a massive migration from northern to southern Mesopotamia was triggered by decades of drought. The drier lands of the south led the ancient Sumerians to develop the world’s first irrigated agricultural systems. This helped sustain a complex urban society for at least four millennia.
But overreliance on a single calorie source, initially wheat and later barley, eventually led to the collapse of the Sumerians’ entire production system, sealing the fate of their civilization.
Contrast that with the highly diverse agricultural system of the Inca Empire, which at its height stretched 4,000 km along the Andes mountain range in South America, from tropical Ecuador to temperate central Chile.
Despite coastal deserts and arid highlands, the Incas managed to create one of the most sophisticated and sustainable food production systems on record.
By constructing a gigantic network of terraces and irrigation systems, scattered over thousands of kilometres, they established a highly diversified food production matrix.
Local adaptation to altitude, heat, frost, drought and different soil types has resulted in the breeding and cultivation of more than 50 varieties of corn and 4,000 varieties of potatoessupported by highly resilient and nutritious crops like peppers, squash and pumpkins, quinoa, amaranth, tarwi and goldenberry.
Consider this now. The relatively “underdeveloped” Inca Empire – a civilization that did not invent the wheel, paper, or written language – typically kept between three and seven years’ worth of food supplies in stock.
The world currently has only 10 weeks remaining wheat stocks.
Although the Inca Empire comprised only 10 million people, its level of food security achieved through greater diversity offers an important historical lesson.
In the modern developed world, agricultural technology, improved transportation, efficient warehousing and marketing have all played important roles in ensuring annual growth. calorie surplus of 23 percent. Skilled breeding of a variety of plants and animals has increased yields while reducing areas of cultivated land.
This success is based on the study and exploitation of diverse species with valuable attributes.
But that diversity is being wiped out by the introduction of unique, high-yielding varieties grown on ever-expanding acres of commercial farmland.
These “monocultures” require huge amounts of oil, fertilizers and agrochemicals, as well as specialized farming methods adapted to very particular environments.
This lack of diversity creates a precarious situation.
A small reduction in inputs or a change in climate patterns – or even worse, a combination of both – can throw the whole system out of balance and cause widespread hunger.
The good news is that scientists are at the forefront, exploring ways to improve preservestudy and understand a rich repertoire of “non-elite” crop varieties from around the world.
Despite the pre-eminence of a handful of cultures in our current food system, more than 50,000 plant species are ediblewith 7,000 of them considered semi-cultivated.
The opportunities offered by new high-throughput genetic technologies are beginning to contribute to a better characterization of these valuable genetic resources.
The first cases of de novo domestication a technique has recently appeared which allows certain genes to be edited in a wild species to create traits of agronomic value.
This can accelerate the development of new, highly climate-resistant and nutritious crops.
There is still time to ensure that the global food supply is not just concentrated on a handful of vulnerable crop varieties. But a concerted global effort from the public and private sectors is needed to fund more efficiently agricultural research.
Research and development play a vital role in boosting agricultural productivity, improving food security and environmental sustainability. New advances have the potential to make future cultures fully “climate proof” and allow us all to avoid a fate similar to that of the ancient Sumerians.
Agustin Zsögön is Associate Professor of Molecular Plant Physiology at the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil.
Article published with the kind permission of 360info.