Basically, the diversity of food resources that humans can cultivate from nature is more than adequate. Over the last few centuries, farmers have reared and cultivated more than 10,000 species for human consumption. Countless different varieties of each species − apples, potatoes and cattle, for instance – have been developed. Take, for example, Topaz apples, Linda potatoes and Simmental cattle.
According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), during the 20th century, three quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops were already lost. However, due to the industrialisation of agriculture, which began in the northern hemisphere and also spread to Asia and Latin America with the green revolution, the focus was on producing just a few high-yield varieties.
High-yield crops depend on fertilisers and pesticides
These cultivated crop varieties only thrive in well-watered monocultures and depend on fertilisers and pesticides. These varieties are also protected by intellectual property rights through plant variety protection and patents. National legislation increasingly favours uniform, industrial seeds, thus placing traditional local varieties at a disadvantage.
This development means crucial factors are being marginalised and the majority of them are gone for good: namely, the time-honoured practices of farmers in developing agricultural crops and breeding farm animals according to their specific cultural needs and geographic and climatic conditions.
Drastic reduction of our food’s genetic basis
Agricultural companies, which also produce seed products alongside chemical fertilisers and pesticides, dominate the world market. They distribute just a few, uniform plant varieties and animal breeds at the expense of traditional and local varieties. Biodiversity has therefore been drastically reduced, and so, too, our food’s genetic basis.
The extent of this loss is especially obvious in the face of global warming. We need new plant strains and animal breeds that are adapted for climate change.
Biodiversity should not be surrendered to agricultural companies
Varieties that are resistant to arid conditions, for instance, are crucial. To develop these, it is vital to maintain genetic diversity that is especially prevalent in small-farming production. Here, the key factors are traditional knowledge of old varieties and breeds. In many cultures, it is mainly women who traditionally hold this knowledge.
To prevent biodiversity from being surrendered to the agricultural companies and laboratories, SWISSAID has initiated the campaign “Our seeds, our life” in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Together with farmers, consumers and indigenous organisations, SWISSAID is working for the preservation and use of local varieties and against the unwanted spread of genetically modified plants.