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This post was written by Dr Colin Khoury. Colin studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.
New Changing Global Diet website explores changes in diets over the past 50 years in countries around the world.
One of the central concepts that unifies those concerned with biodiversity is the understanding that this diversity is being lost, piece by piece, to a greater or lesser degree, globally.
The same goes for the biodiversity of what we eat. Scientists and activists have worried about the loss of crops and their many traditional varieties for at least a hundred years, since botanist N. I. Vavilov traveled the world in search of plants useful for cultivation in his Russian homeland. He noticed that diversity was disappearing in the cradles of agriculture – places where crops had been cultivated continuously for thousands of years. The alarm sounded even louder 50 years ago, during the Green Revolution, when farmers in some of the most diverse regions of the world largely replaced their many locally adapted wheat, rice and other grain varieties with fewer, more uniform, higher yielding professionally bred varieties.
Cradles of agriculture: origins and primary regions of diversity of agricultural crops
(Click to magnify)
This is ironic, since modern productive crop varieties are bred by wisely mixing and matching diverse genetic resources. The disappearance of old varieties thus reduces the options available to plant breeders, including those working to produce more nutritious or resilient crops.
Being a food biodiversity scientist, I grew up (in the professional sense) with the loss of crop diversity looming over my head, providing both a raison d’être, and an urgency to my efforts. Somewhere along the line, I became interested in understanding its magnitude. That is, counting how many crops and how many varieties have been lost.
That’s where it started to become complicated, and also more interesting. Because, when I went looking for signs of the loss of specific crops, I couldn’t find any. Instead, I found evidence of massive global changes in our food diversity that left me worried, but at the same time hopeful.
A bit of background. Most of the numbers seen in the news on how much crop diversity has been lost go back to a handful of reports and books that reference a few studies: for example, the changing number of vegetable varieties for sale in the U.S. over time. The results are estimations for a few crops at local to national levels, but they somehow have been inflated to generalized statements about the global state of crop diversity, the most common of which being some variation of “75% of diversity in crops has been lost”.
Putting true numbers on diversity loss turns out to be a complicated and contested business, with no shortage of strong opinions. One big part of the problem is that there aren’t many good ways to count the diversity that existed before it disappeared. Researchers have done some work to assess the changes in diversity in crop varieties of Green Revolution cereals, and to some degree on the genetic diversity within those varieties. The results indicate that, although diversity on farms decreased when farmers first replaced traditional varieties with modern types, the more recent trends are not so simple to decipher.
It was particularly surprising to me that very little work had been done to understand the changes in what is probably the simplest level to measure: the diversity of crop species in the human diet, that is, how successful is maize versus rice versus potato versus quinoa and so on. I realized that data on the contribution of crops to national food supplies were available for almost all countries worldwide via FAOSTAT, with information for every year since 1961. Perhaps these were the data that could show when a crop fell off the world map.
Fast forward through a couple of years of investigation. To my great surprise, I found that not a single crop was lost over the past 50 years! There was no evidence for extinction. What was going on?
It turns out that my failure to see any loss of crops was due to the lack of sufficient resolution in the FAO data. Only 52 meaningful crop species-specific commodities are measured and a number of these are general groupings such as “cereals, other”. Because of this lack of specificity, the data couldn’t comprehensively assess the crops that have been most vulnerable to changes in the global food system over the past 50 years. In FAO data, these plants are either thrown into the general categories or they aren’t measured at all, especially if they are produced only on a small scale, for local markets or in home gardens. This is, in itself, sign enough that they may be imperiled. We need better statistics about what people eat (and grow) around the world. But, enough is known to be confident that many locally relevant crops are in decline.
Over the past 50 years, almost all countries’ diets actually became more diverse, not less, for the crops that FAO statistics do report on. We found that traditional diets that were primarily based on singular staples a half century ago, for instance rice in Southeast Asia, had diversified over time to include other staples such as wheat and potatoes. The same was true for maize-based diets in Latin America, sorghum- and millet-based diets in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on.
Not that there weren’t plant winners and losers. Wheat, rice, and maize, the most dominant crops worldwide 50 years ago, became more important globally. Other crops emerged as widespread staples, particularly oilcrops such as soybean, palm oil, sunflower, and rapeseed oil. And, as the winners came to take more precedence in food supplies around the world, alternative staples such as sorghum, millets, rye, cassava, sweet potato, and yam were marginalized. They haven’t disappeared (at least not yet), but they have become less important to what is eaten every day.
As countries’ food supplies became more diverse in the winner crops reported by FAO, and the relative abundance of these crops within diets became more even, food supplies worldwide became much more similar, with an average decrease in variation between diets in different countries of 68.8% over the past 50 years!
This is why, although we could see no absolute loss in crops consumed over the past 50 years, I am concerned. For even in the relatively small list of crops reported in the FAO data, many of these foods are becoming marginalized, day by day, bite by bite. That doesn’t seem like a good thing for the long-term resilience of our agricultural areas, nor for human health, although it’s important to remember that such changes are the collateral damage resulting from the creation of highly productive mega-crop farming systems, which have increased the affordability of these foods worldwide, leading to less stunting and other effects of undernutrition worldwide. On the other hand, global dependence on a few select crops equates to expansive monocultures, with more lives riding on the outcome of the game of cat and mouse between pestilence and uniform varieties grown over large areas. Moreover, cheaply available macronutrients have contributed to the negative effects of the nutrition transition, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
So why then am I hopeful? Because the data, and some literature, and my own direct experience also indicate that diets in recent years, in some countries, are beginning to move in different directions, reducing the excessive use of animal products and other energy-dense and environmentally expensive foods, and becoming more diverse, particularly with regard to fruits and vegetables, and even healthy grains. What better evidence than quinoa, which was relatively unknown outside the Andes a couple of decades ago, and is now cultivated in 100 countries and consumed in even more?
When we published our findings of increasing homogeneity in global food supplies, we hadn’t yet found a good way to make the underlying national-level data readily visible to interested readers. This is why I’m tremendously excited to announce the publication of our new Changing Global Diet website, which provides interactive visuals for 152 countries over 50 years of change. We that hope you will enjoy your own investigations of dietary change over time. Perhaps you can tell us where you think the changing global diet is headed.
One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.
When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.
Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today
According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.
Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.
Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.
Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient
Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”
And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.
Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.
Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world
We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.
But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.
Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.
Building healthy soil
Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.
I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.
No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.
So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.
We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.
Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.
This week we spoke to Professor Jonathan Lynch, Penn State University, whose research on root traits has deepened our understanding of how plants adapt to drought and low soil fertility.
Could you begin by giving us a brief introduction to your research?
We are trying to understand how plants adapt to drought and low soil fertility. This is important because all plants in terrestrial ecosystems experience suboptimal water and nutrient availability, so in rich nations we maintain crop yields with irrigation and fertilizer, which is not sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, climate change is further degrading soil fertility and increasing plant stress. This topic is therefore both a central question in plant evolution and a key challenge for our civilization. We need to develop better ways to sustain so many people on this planet, and a big part of that will be developing more resilient, efficient crop plants.
Drought and low soil fertility are devastating for crops. Image credit: CIAT. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.
What got you interested in this field, and how has your career developed over time?
When I was 9 years old I became aware of a famine in Africa related to crop failure and resolved to do something about it. I studied soils and plant nutrition as an undergraduate, and in graduate school worked on plant adaptation to low phosphorus and salinity stress, moving to a research position at the CIAT headquarters in Colombia. Later I moved to Penn State, where I have maintained this focus, working to understand the stress tolerance of staple crops, and collaborating with crop breeders in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Your recent publications feature a variety of different crop plants. Could you talk about how you select a species to study?
We work with species that are important for food security, that grow in our field environments, and that I think are cool. We have devoted most of our efforts to the common bean – globally the most important food legume – and maize, which is the most important global crop. These species are often grown together in Africa and Latin America, and part of our work has been geared to understanding how maize/bean and maize/bean/squash polycultures perform under stress. These are fascinating, beautiful plants with huge cultural importance in human history. They are also supported by talented, cooperative research communities. One nice feature of working with food security crops is that their research communities share common goals of achieving impact to improve human welfare.
The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is an important staple in many parts of the world. Image credit: Ervins Strauhmanis. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.
Many researchers use Arabidopsis thaliana for plant research, but are crops better suited for root research than the delicate roots of Arabidopsis? Are crop plants more or less difficult to work with in your research than Arabidopsis?
The best research system is entirely a function of your goals and questions. We have worked with Arabidopsis for some questions. Since we work with processes at multiple scales, including crop stands, whole organisms, organs, tissues, and cells, it has been useful to work with large plants such as maize, which are large enough to easily measure and to work with in the field. The most interesting stress adaptations for crop breeding are those that differ among genotypes of the same species, and at that level of organization there is a lot of biology that is specific to that species, that cannot readily be generalized from model organisms with very different life strategies. There has been considerable attention to model genomes and much less attention to model phenomes.
You have developed methodologies for the high-throughput phenotyping of crop plants. What does this technique involve and what challenges did you have to overcome to succeed?
We have developed multiple phenotyping approaches – too many to summarize readily here. Our overall approach is simply to develop a tool that helps us achieve our goals. For example, we have developed tools to quantify the root architecture of thousands of plants in the field, to measure anatomical phenotypes of thousands of samples from field-grown roots, to help us determine which root phenotypes might affect soil resource capture, etc. Working with geneticists and breeders, we are constantly asked to measure something meaningful on thousands of plants in a field, in many fields, every season. ARPA-E (the US Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) has recently funded us to develop phenotyping tools for root depth in the field, but this is the first time we have been funded to develop phenotyping tools – generally we just come up with things to help us do our work, which fortunately have been useful for other researchers as well.
Could you talk about some of the computational models you have developed for investigating plant growth and development?
The biological interactions between plants and their environment are so complex, we need computational (in silico) tools to help us evaluate them. Increasingly, in silico tools can integrate information across multiple scales, from gene expression to crop stands. These tools also allow us to evaluate things that are difficult to measure, such as phenotypes that do not yet exist, or future climates. In silico biology will be an essential tool in 21st Century biology, which will have access to huge amounts of data at multiple scales that can be used to try to understand incredibly complex systems, such as the human brain or roots interacting with living soil. Our main in silico tool is SimRoot, developed over the past 25 years to understand how root phenotypes affect soil resource capture.
Check out a SimRoot model below:
You have been working on breeding plants that have improved yield in soils with low fertility. What have you achieved in this work?
In collaboration with crop breeders and colleagues in various nations we have developed improved common bean lines with better yield under drought and low soil fertility that are being deployed in Africa and Latin America, improved soybean lines with better yield in soils with low phosphorus being deployed in Africa and Asia, and are now working with maize breeders in Africa to develop lines with better yield under drought and low nitrogen stress. Many crop breeders are using our methods for root phenotyping to target root phenotypes in their selection regimes in multiple crops.
What piece of advice do you have for early career researchers?
You are at the forefront of an unprecedented challenge we face as a species – how to sustain 10 billion people in a degrading environment. Plant biologists are an essential part of the effort to reshape how we live on this planet. Do not doubt the importance of your efforts. Do not lose sight of the very real human impact of your scientific choices. Do not be deterred by the gamesmanship and ‘primate politics’ of science. You can make a difference. We need you.
[MEXICO CITY] An international team of scientists identified a hundred genes that influence adaptation to the latitude, altitude, growing season and flowering time of nearly 4,500 native maize varieties in Mexico and in almost all Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Creole — or native — varieties of maize are derived from improvements made over thousands of years by local farmers, and contain genes that help them adapt to different environments.
“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production.”
Sarah Hearne, CIMMYT
“Latin American breeders will be able to use these results to identify native varieties that could contribute to improved adaptation”, Edward Buckler, a Cornell University researcher and co-author of the study published in Nature Genetics (February 6), told SciDev.Net.
The information on the genetic markers described in the study will be available online, said Sarah Hearne, a researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the study. “Meanwhile, any breeder can contact us to request information”, she said.
“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production”, Hearne said.
Maize ears from CIMMYT’s collection, showing a wide variety of colors and shapes. CIMMYTs germplasm bank contains about 28,000 unique samples of cultivated maize and its wild relatives, teosinte and Tripsacum. These include about 26,000 samples of farmer landracestraditional, locally-adapted varieties that are rich in diversity. The bank both conserves this diversity and makes it available as a resource for breeding. Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.
Studying native maize varieties is extremely difficult because of their genetic variation. Although domesticated, they are wilder than commercial varieties.
For this study, the researchers cultivated hybrid creole varieties in various environments in Latin America and identified regions of the genome that control growth rates. They looked into where the varieties came from and what genetic features contributed to their growth in that environment.
In comments to SciDev.Net, James Holland, a researcher at North Carolina State University, Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a researcher at the University of California Davis, and Rodomiro Ortiz, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences — who did not participate in the study — commended the magnitude of the study and the original method developed by the researchers to access the rich set of genetic information about native maize varieties.
Hearne added that the research team has initiated a “pre-breeding” programme with a small group of breeders in Mexico. As part of that programme, CIMMYT delivers to breeders materials from its germplasm bank of Creole maize; it also provides molecular information the breeders can use to generate new varieties.