Growing calls for crop diversity | FT Food Revolution
Mass agriculture has embraced uniform, monoculture crops that can produce greater yields, but can also be more susceptible to disease. Now researchers and some growers are warning that diversity must be encouraged, to make the food system more resilient to threats like pests and climate change. The FT's Neville Hawcock reports
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Imagine putting all your life savings into one company or a single investment, and that's what we've done with the food system. We need diversity in agriculture. We need the diversity of crops.
Having a food system which is full of diversity and having a seed system which is full of diversity, it gives us a lot more resilience.
On the windswept Welsh coast in Pembrokeshire, there's a farmer who is on a personal quest to restore black oats to his land.
There's a decent amount. So that would that would darken to black, then.
It was a grain he thought he'd lost forever.
Everybody was growing black oats when I was about 10. Everybody, you saw it everywhere. But why should we leave it go?
Black oats are typically used for soil improvement or animal feed. But over time they died out here, as the agriculture industry moved on to other varieties better suited to modern farming techniques.
They went out of fashion. Now, we have modern varieties that are about 9 in tall that suits the industrial mode of farming we're in.
Phasing out black oats here was just a small reflection of a much wider trend in agriculture.
What we've done is have breakthrough after breakthrough in agriculture in crop breeding, in production techniques. And that's led us down a path in which we can focus more and more on yield. We're now seeing more fragility, because of the homogeneity that's spread around the world.
There are real-life examples in which uniformity has created risk and fragility in the food system. For example, today, the globally traded banana, of which there is only one, the Cavendish, is now susceptible to Panama disease. And once that plant is attacked it can spread to another plant, because they are genetically uniform. And farmers' incomes are being impacted. Food production is suffering. And we can see these risks increasing with climate change.
According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, some 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has been lost between 1900 and 2000. But farms like Gerald's are gradually addressing the problem, albeit on a tiny scale.
It's possible to go to parts of the world where farmers are growing a crop with seed that has been passed down through the generations.
Ultimately, after years of searching, Gerald finally found some black oat seeds via another Welsh farmer, and the crop took hold.
It means a great deal. I've got a passion for ancient varieties. Black oats was the start of it. And since then I've been sourcing other ancient varieties.
But his isn't the only farm looking to preserve near-forgotten seeds.
We work with growers and farmers on the ground to try and build a more resilient seed system in the UK and Ireland.
Five years ago, Gerald and Katie founded Llafur Ni, which means 'Our Grains', a network of like-minded individuals.
Seed sovereignty is about farmers having the right to use and save and share their own seeds. So it's about having a seed system which is able to be accessed by everybody, as opposed to being owned by a small number of corporations.
Four companies - Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus - known collectively as ABCD, control over 70 per cent of the global grain trade.
The seed companies that now control the vast majority of seed production and distribution in the world began as chemical companies following the green revolution. So what we see is a consolidation in supply chains from the 1960s to the present day. These companies want to sell the seeds and the chemicals to as many different countries around the world.
Critics argue that such a concentrated grain market has made crops more uniform, which in turn makes the global food system more vulnerable to shocks such as disease and climate change - something to which the team at Llafur Ni would like to offer an alternative. As part of their mission they have joined forces with the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Aberystwyth. Here at the institute's fields, they're constantly trialling and testing crops, looking to identify their varying genetic traits.
We have 300 different varieties of oats growing in this trial. And this is a look at the different adaptations that are at different times of sowing. So we want to understand how they will perform at different times of year.
Crucially, the institute also has an impressive seed bank, and it began sharing its seeds with Llafur Ni in 2018. The bank holds more than 30,000 seeds gathered from all over the world.
So when an oat grain is delivered here, how long would you expect it to remain viable under these conditions, all being well?
Well, we have some seed here that dates from the 1940s. But in general we would hope to grow this material out every 20 years or so, so that we can ensure that the seed remains viable.
For Catherine, there are real benefits in seeing how the seeds perform outside the institute's more controlled environment.
So I was able to get 100 seeds of a number of different landraces or old varieties, and then they grew that seed at a range of their own farms in the local area. And so that way we got some information about how they would grow under modern-day conditions.
For the institute, sharing its seeds could prove a valuable aid in breeding new strains of crops, better suited to the world's changing climatic conditions.
When we started breeding oats here in Aberystwyth in 1990, yield was the most important thing to improve, whereas now, important things are things like resilience to the environment, improving the nutritional qualities of the grain and things like that.
There are traits, characteristics, that we will need for the future. Drought tolerance, resistance to higher temperatures, more nutrient density - all of these properties have disappeared from many of the commercial, mainstream, modern crops.
Back in Pembrokeshire we take a closer look at this year's crop of black oats.
This is quite a rich crop.
If I can get a tonne or two tonnes off this field, yeah, I'll be happy.
Two tonnes of actual grain?
And gradually, one seed at a time, the crops in this area could become more varied.
Reviving the seed is like the very first step. And you revive the seed, and then you revive the crops, and by reviving the crops, you revive the food.
The Llafur Ni project may be a drop in the ocean, but it's not just food producers who can play a role.
One thing that we should all be doing is seeking out diversity, whether it's a variety of apple that you haven't tasted before, cheese made by a farmer using a type of... a breed of cow, or even, there are now bakers using unusual types of grains to bake bread. So we can all be active players to support these new supply chains, these producers, who are celebrating diversity in the food that they're producing.
And that includes a farmer in Wales growing black oats, a crop brought back from the edge of extinction.