(Bloomberg) — Global hunger and malnutrition are on the rise, as are temperatures and water shortages. Humanity must adapt crops to the changing climate by breeding hardier plants, but political and commercial interests continue to stymie those efforts.
Sharing seeds is critical to the global food system. To develop new varieties of crops that can thrive in a warmer, wetter or drier world, researchers must screen a wide range of plant materials to find key traits, like drought- and pest-tolerance.
A broad mix of plants and animals is vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. For good crops, you need good soil. For good soil, you need a multitude of plants, wildlife and even pests. Yet agricultural biodiversity continues to decline. The culprits are urbanization, pollution, industrial farming practices and climate change.
More than 500 representatives gathered last week in Rome to resolve longstanding tensions over the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a 2004 accord intended to protect the global food supply. Six years of negotiations broke down over how to manage the treaty obligations of the genetic sequence inside seeds.
Giving government and private researchers access to more seeds allows them to breed plants better able to withstand everything from drought in the U.S. West to the spread of coffee rust in South America. The fewer seeds they have access to, the more difficult the task.
Currently, fewer than 200 of 6,000 plant species cultivated for food by humanity contribute meaningfully to global food output, and a mere nine of those account for 66% of total crop production, according to a February United Nations report. Almost one quarter of 4,000 wild food species—which can be even more nutrient-dense than their cultivated counterparts—are decreasing in abundance, according to the same report.
The market desire for high-performing plant varieties favored by big agriculture due to their high-profit potential further narrows the diversity in farmers’ fields.