Your cart is currently empty. Add to Cart

The Market of Seeds: The Price of Biodiversity

Words by
October 17, 2016
When I think about the word biodiversity, tadpoles come to mind.

I’m seven years old. We’re on a class field trip to the Appian Way Regional Park in Rome. My class stands in a circle, looking down at a huge puddle. Inside we can see hundreds of tadpoles swimming about. Our teacher starts explaining about ecosystems and the balance of organisms within an ecosystem, but I’m too busy watching the little frogs swimming to pay attention.

Five tadpoles return with us to the classroom. We make them a home in half of a plastic bottle next to two goldfish living happily in their bowl. Five days later, the tadpoles are dead.

Stefania notices first, screaming out loud. Seeing our new class pets floating dead, we ask the teacher, “But why!?”

“They died,” she explains, “because they were taken out of their ecosystem.” Tragic.

As most of us had been mesmerised by the swimming tadpoles back at the Park, we hadn’t really paid attention to all those words like “ecosystem” and “organism.”

“What exactly does ecosystem mean?” we plead.

An ecosystem is a home, she explains, But a home is more than just a house.
“An ecosystem is a home,” she explains, “But a home is more than just a house. Part of it is the physical house, the walls and the roof that keep us safe, or the pond for the tadpoles. But it’s also about the relationships between all the different members of any ecosystem. There are all sorts of things that make up an ecosystem. If one gets weak, the relationship will suffer, and the whole ecosystem can crumble, just like a house when one wall is knocked down.”

The teacher at that moment was carefully introducing a different subject (probably to distract us from the tragic death of our five new tadpoles): biodiversity.

The United Nations, in their Convention on Biological Diversity, defines biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, among others, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”
The Market of Seeds: The Price of Biodiversity
photo © Beatrice Tamagnini
The website goes on to explain that biodiversity “is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species - for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA--the building blocks of life--determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.”

Our investigation into biodiversity centers around plants and starts with the seed. The landscape of plant biodiversity, in particular, is changing rapidly. The FAO estimates that there are roughly a quarter million plant varieties available for agriculture, but less than three percent of these are in use today. Why? The seed holds the answer.  

The Spread of Seeds: Natural and Man-made Selection

Biodiversity is the natural condition of any wild environment untouched by man. Since the start of time, seeds (and all organisms, for that matter) have been distinct from region to region, and continent to continent, varying greatly depending on their geographical location. But it has been since Neolithic times that man has participated in the refinement of plant biodiversity. As the first humans started cultivating plants for food, seeds and crops that give off the most abundant yields and offered the best taste were selected and, just as in nature, the weak and fragile were discarded. As agricultural practices continued, certain crops like wheat and barely set themselves apart as important grains which man came to rely on to feed the populations.

Over time, thanks to barter, trade and travel, seeds were brought from one continent to another, expanding access to different crops. It wasn’t just seeds that were exchanging hands, but also know-how: technical, agricultural, medicinal and social knowledge was dispersed across territories. With this knowledge, cultivators made more and more refined decisions regarding seed and crop selection, which led to a filtering of the gene pool across plant species.
The Market of Seeds: The Price of Biodiversity
photo © Beatrice Tamagnini

The Call for Uniformity

Today, the global market calls for standardised crops that are cultivated with specific agricultural techniques conducive to extensive and intensive farms. Looking at the region of South Tyrol, Italy, and their famous apples, we see how modern market standardisation has further depleted regional biodiversity.

The apple, originating from Kazakhstan, arrived with the first Roman conquerors and established themselves as an integral part of the regional farmers’ crops. In the Middle Ages, the first exports towards northern Europe started, but it was only in 1867 with the construction of the Brenner railway (running between Austria and Italy) that consistent export began. Almost immediately, real market demand was defined, and because of this, the first grower's cooperatives were formed. Much of the local marshland was drained to make way for apple cultivation. South Tyrol became (and still is) the largest area of intensive apple cultivation in Europe. And if before apples came in a myriad of shapes, colours, flavours and consistencies that changed from valley to valley and family to family in which they grew, they have now become dictated by market aesthetic and expectations. Instead of separate varieties, today's apples are simply recognised among consumers by their colour: the yellow apple, the green apple and the red apple.

But actually in order to reach those perfect shapes that we know easily on supermarket shelves, nature needs to be directed with human intervention—in this case, pesticides. Wither fewer varieties grown together, apple fields are more susceptible to weeds, bugs and disease. The use of broad-spectrum pesticides (widespread in the apple cultivation of South Tyrol) is both a consequence and cause for the loss of biodiversity. Not only have we lost unique apple species with monoculture cultivation and strong pesticide use, but the region has lost the ecosystem that once supported this biodiversity: bugs, plants, and individual gene pools have all declined.

Industrialization Incentives

In modern agriculture, problems are often attacked with technology advancement and standard marketing techniques. In the 1960’s global attention was given to the rising world population. And so, In order to feed the increasingly populated earth, it was deemed necessary to increase food production. This jumpstarted the Green Revolution of the 1960’s. Individual governments and independent companies decided to invest in research and new agricultural technologies, developing ways to increase yields, including new types of pesticides and fertilisers. With these new technologies came the promise of brilliant harvests to farmers, who could then be assured of a greater return thanks to rigid control over their product.

Theoretically, the thinking to increase production was sound. In fact, if only yellow peppers are cultivated in large fields, the type of fertiliser will be the same for the entire field, the watering ration the same, the type of soil and light (and yes, the insects that attack the plants) will also all be the same. With these intensive monocultures, an entire crop harvest will look similar, as will its packaging and mode of transportation. This sort of predictability seems to lessen the risk of loss, and most certainly makes for a uniform taste.

These techniques allow for a satisfied consumer who can then be happy to find the same yellow pepper as part of that inseparable trio together with the red pepper and green pepper on the same shelf in every supermarket. The shape is the same, the colour is the same, the consistency is the same. And of course, the flavour is always the same—predictably boring.

Production standardisation has taught the consumer to expect and desire the same products on the same shelf, across every season. Too many choices make life difficult.
Production standardisation has taught the consumer to expect and desire the same products on the same shelf, across every season. Too many choices make life difficult. We don’t even have the slightest awareness of how many different vegetables are actually found in nature. But what we are sure of is the world’s rising population and that to feed our globe, one of the solutions has been industrial standardisation in agriculture.

This type of change in agriculture has usually meant the abandonment of small, traditional agrarian techniques along with varieties that are not adaptable to intensive agriculture. The desire to get higher and higher yields per consumer seems to come at the expense of the degradation of biodiversity. With the growth and power of the industrial food sector, as well as customer demand to fight hunger at moderate prices, we have created an impoverished natural environment. Basically, we ask from plants the same productivity that we ask of machines.

Genetic Engineering: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)

Genetic engineering made its appearance in the agricultural industry in the same way, as the seeds and their genes proposed by nature no longer satisfied the human requirements. The resulting natural crops were deemed too weak in certain climates, or subject to repeated disease, or perhaps too bitter for the market demand. And so, the seeds and their genes were presented for modification by expert engineers.

The control of genetic material has always been a much talked about topic, above all because it touches on issues concerning ethics and morals.
Genetic selection has always been an aspect of agriculture. Farmers have taken advantage of nature’s genetic variability in all species to influence evolution in the desired way. Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was the first to apply mathematical and statistical methods in order to better control selected reproduction and define his laws of genetics. The control of genetic material has always been a much talked about topic, above all because it touches on issues concerning ethics and morals. But Mendel, being the first to apply these techniques, was free to experiment as he saw fit, playing undisturbed with sweet pea fertility within the confines of his Augustinian monastery.

His method consisted of gathering pollen from one plant with a fine brush to fertilise another. Thanks to Mendel, both a naturalist and mathematician, today we are able to understand the precise method of genetic crossing in plants, whereas before it was done a bit haphazardly, without great results, simply by putting two plants next to each other.

Today, genetic engineering is a technology in which sequences of DNA are transferred in laboratories in a way to cause predetermined changes to the genetic makeup of an organism.

Each country’s position on genetic engineering is quite different. In Italy, for example, the research and experimentation on GMOs is banned. Still, 40% of imported corn in Italy is the same biotech corn which is banned from being researched on Italian soil but is cultivated in neighbouring countries like Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal.

The seed, created through genetic manipulation in labs, is commonly and legally considered genetic modification and therefore is patentable, subject to property laws. The GMO seed is protected by a patent that allows the seed to be spread but also protects it from unauthorised copying.

Before plants had no owners, they had only their cultivators. But today genetic modification is changing the playing field. What does it mean for seeds, plants and cultivators using crops created in laboratories? Who can claim ownership and how is it done? And what effects do these terms have on the diversity of the plants and food we grow and eat?

Stay tuned for the second part of this story coming soon in Sharing Seeds and Stories.