We have the most productive food system in human history. But also the most fragile

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Until the 1950s, the Gros Michel was the king banana. Not only was it sweeter than the current ones, but its thick skin and the density of its clusters made it an excellent product to transport. But in 1950, Panama disease started to wreak havoc on the enormous plantations of half the world and a decade was enough for it to disappear from our lives. Day by day, 99% of all bananas that are traded internationally are Cavendish.


It is not just a matter of plagues and epidemics. The Coffea stenophylla was a “fragrant, fruity and sweet” variety of coffee that was given up for lost in Sierra Leone at the end of the same decade. In this case, it was the civil war and the wild deforestation that caused the variety to disappear from the map. In 2018, after years of searching, a team of researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew he found a small group of C. stenophylla and, since then, they are trying to recover the populations.

Nostalgia or snobbery?. Nothing of that. Indeed, efforts to resuscitate the C. stenophylla they are better understood next to the history of the Gross Michel: it is not a good idea to depend on a few types of crops. In the case of coffee, as Dan Saldino said, there are 130 known species, but world trade depends on two, Arabica and Robusta. And none of them are particularly good at adapting to the more direct consequences of climate change. However, the C. stenophylla supports better high temperatures and reasonably coexists with droughts.

a common problem All of this is nothing more than a reflection of something that has been happening since the mid-twentieth century: “a highly productive but incredibly fragile food system” because it depends on fewer and fewer species and varieties. In other words, we have been reducing the genetic diversity of crops around the world to bet on the most profitable (economically, industrially and socially). The consequence is that these crops are highly exposed to climatic changes (or epidemic hazards). An exhibition that moves to the entire international supply chain.

In 2017, a team analyzed what would be the impact of climate change on food. Their conclusions (although they should be updated to the current situation and models) serve as a guide to understand what we are talking about: “each increase of one degree Celsius in the global average temperature would reduce, on average, world wheat yields by one 6%, rice 3.2%, corn 7.4% and soybeans 3.1%”

Above all, because the world goes much faster than before. The phylloxera it took little more than half a century to destroy the vines of all Europe. Panama disease was enough for a decade to end the reign of Gros Michel. The “leaf blight” It almost wiped out corn production in the United States in the early 1970s. If we stop to think in historical terms, the situation is clear: global interconnectedness makes pests move faster and faster. The appearance of tropical diseases in Spain (and ultimately the entire COVID pandemic) is a good example of our measures to control how diseases move around the world.

Long periods of drought are going to be more and more normal.  It's time to get used to them

When a door closes… In this sense, although our capacity to isolate current crops is limited, there is a different strategy: take advantage of everything we know about agriculture and genetics to increase the genetic diversity of our plants without significant losses in their productivity. Today, the walls built by this diversity are the best guarantee of resilience for our food chains.

Obviously, it is not something that can be improvised overnight. It is a task that requires a lot of attention and work and that, precisely for this reason, should be undertaken as soon as possible. Especially since the same hybrid and commercial seed industry that compromised North American corn in the 1970s (within a few years up to 1500 varieties of maize are replaced, for a handful of them all defenseless against ‘leaf blight’), has mechanisms to promote a change in favor of genetic diversity. It is not something difficult, it just takes a clear will to plan for the long term.

Image | james baltz

Until the 1950s, the Gros Michel was the king banana. Not only was it sweeter than the current ones, but…

Until the 1950s, the Gros Michel was the king banana. Not only was it sweeter than the current ones, but…

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