Horn of plenty sounds a sour, scary note

December 23, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

ROME -- There's big trouble down on the farm.

Revolutionary successes in the quest to feed a hungry, ever-growing world are also nonchalantly decimating nature's kingdom.

So this is progress?

Since the beginning of this century, 75 percent of the genetic diversity of the world's agricultural crops has been lost. In Europe, about half of all breeds of domestic animals that existed in 1900 are extinct. A third of the breeds that remain could be gone in 20 years.

About 6,000 apple varieties that grew on American farms 100 years ago are gone. Globally, domesticated animals are disappearing at the rate of one breed a week in a rapidly accelerating and potentially apocalyptic chronicle of human destruction.

Ironically, this is occurring as a byproduct of modern technological sophistication: Farmers cultivate for maximum efficiency and yield, soon concentrating on the best, most productive few. This, however, leaves more and more species -- plants and animals -- to fall into disuse and obscurity.

The dangers of the massive genetic erosion that results alarm specialists at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization here who monitor the world's plant and animal life. They call it "a catastrophe in the making."

"Evolution has always led to extinction or mutation -- man can't stop that," said Hartwig de Haen, FAO assistant director general in charge of agriculture. "But we are seeing a dramatic decline in the number of useful plant and animal species. And this time -- often unconsciously -- it is provoked by human action. We have an obligation to maintain what is left as a promise for the future."

Editors of a new study on genetic resources published this fall say that while international public attention focuses on tropical forests, "biodiversity in farmers' fields is at least as significant, since it underpins our basic food security."

A pioneering FAO World Watch List, published last month, shows that of about 4,000 known breeds of farm animals, 1,000 are threatened by extinction. On a detailed, depressing endangered list are California's San Clemente goat and Santa Cruz sheep; Florida Cracker cattle; the Rocky Mountain horse; the Navajo-Churro sheep; Maine's Katahdin sheep, Iowa's Cream Draft horse; the Tennessee Fainting goat; the red Minnesota No. 1 pig, and the black Montana No. 1 pig.

"Only about a decade ago did we become aware that organisms were being lost in great numbers," said Robin Welcomme, a senior FAO fisheries officer. "Once we began documenting what we are actually losing, people got very scared very quickly."

In an otherwise glum picture, there is good news: International recognition of the need to conserve diversity among animals and plants officially comes of age this month. A protective Convention on Biological Diversity goes into effect among 34 nations that have ratified it. An additional 120 countries, including the United States, have signed but not yet ratified the accord, which establishes global priorities, policies and mechanisms for preserving biodiversity.

"The convention is a flag, an alert, a warning," Mr. Welcomme said. "There is no doubt we are losing a considerable amount of our biodiversity at a progressively increasing rate. But the convention can't solve the problem. Individual countries must do that."

While the convention is widely seen as a key step toward improved international protection and conservation of genetic stocks, incalculable damage already has been done, FAO experts lament. And more occurs every day.

FAO specialist Cary Fowler was an avid apple sleuth back home in North Carolina. He counted 7,091 American varieties listed in state and federal reports at the turn of the century. Comparing old lists with ones of apples now grown in Europe and North America, he found that 86 percent of the old varieties are functionally extinct -- no longer known to be grown.

"It was through control of the scattering of wild seeds [and their pods] that humans first domesticated plants. Now control over those very plants threatens to shatter the world's food supply," said Mr. Fowler, co-author of the book "Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity." He is in Rome helping to develop a first overview of the state of the world's genetic plant resources and a companion global action plan. Publication date: 1996.

"Most people think of biodiversity as butterflies and ferns, but we are not talking so much about species diversity as diversity within species," Mr. Fowler said. "Extinction is not simply an event that happens when the last one dies, but a process. Extinction is what happens when a species loses its ability to evolve."

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