Food Ark

Detail of photo by Jim Richardson/National Geographic

One often overlooked critique of industrial agriculture is its over reliance on monoculture and genetically modified seeds -- engineered primarily for traits like package-ability and yield -- which in a very short period of time (relatively), has dramatically limited the variety of breeds available. Back in the day, people saved seeds that worked well in their climates, and bred for other traits, like flavor.

Not only does concentrating on a small number of breeds to the detriment of others rob us of "the spice of life," with the looming threats of climate change and disease, it’s a pretty big gamble to stake the world’s food supply on just a few varieties. As such, many see hope in the movement to preserve the vast seeds and breeds still in existence today. The July issue of the National Geographic magazine takes a look at how seed banks around the world are cataloging heritage breeds, with the hopes that one day the diversity that preserve may save our food system. Read on for an excerpt of NGS’s Food Ark by Charles Siebert, or click through to read more.

Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We've been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat.

Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct.

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we've come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we've let go extinct.