What the Crop Trust taught UC Berkeley students about the future of our food

Crop diversity is a prerequisite for food security

“Thinking about the world without seeds is basically unimaginable. Clothes, trees, flowers, food, landscape, they’re all based in seeds. Seeds are miracles.”

Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, addressed an attentive group of UC Berkeley students Wednesday evening at the Free Speech Movement Cafe in Moffitt Library.

She educated students on the Crop Trust’s efforts and the importance of crop diversity for global food security; much of that involves seeds, lots and lots of seeds.

Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, spoke to UC Berkeley students Wednesday afternoon

Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, spoke to UC Berkeley students Wednesday afternoon

The Crop Trust is an international organization whose mission is to conserve and prevent the degradation of crop diversity for food security worldwide, forever.

The Crop Trust and farmers worldwide are facing their biggest agricultural challenges yet due to climate change, said Haga. According to the International Panel of Climate Change, for each degree the temperature increases (Celsius) around the globe, agricultural yields are reduced by two percent every decade. With climate change also comes heightened instability for farmers, as the number of natural catastrophic events linked to climate change has increased over the past couple of decades.

It is all a domino effect – when the population grows and agricultural production goes down, there is simply not enough food for everyone. The growing population places more pressure on the scarce land that we have, which forces more food to be grown on fewer hectares of land. As a result, some 795 million people are malnourished, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

The challenge ahead is to produce more nutritious food with less pesticides, fertilizer, and environmental footprint, on less land with less water.

Can we really do all that? According to Haga, we most definitely can, and that is where crop diversity comes into play.

Why is crop diversity so important?

Crop diversity is the building blocks for the future of agriculture. Natural diversity is the raw material for crop improvement via traditional breeding. Conserving all crops is vital because one might have the trait to adapt to a particular climate, have nutritious value, or increase yields.

For instance, diversity beat crop disease in Kenya. Diversity of wheat crops fell dangerously low due to a disease code-named Ug99, but research conducted on the plethora of seeds found in gene banks helped breeders discover six tolerant varieties of wheat in less than nine years. Without gene banks, this feat could not have been done in a short period of time.

However, so much diversity has already been lost. China lost 90% of rice varieties since 1950, Mexico lost 80% of corn varieties since 1900, India lost 90% of rice varieties since 1900, and the United States lost 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900.

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What does the Crop Trust do to protect crop diversity?

The Crop Trust implemented a three-tier global gene bank system that consists of eleven international gene banks with the most important seed collections in the world, key national gene banks, and the global backup at Svalbard.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an emergency dooms-day seed vault in the Arctic archipelago, on the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. It opened in 2015 to retrieve vital seeds for Syria, because the bloody conflicts in Syria have made it impossible for scientists to continue working at the Crop Trust’s gene banks in Aleppo. New seeds have been planted in Lebanon and Morocco, away from the bombs in Syria, so that scientists can resume their work.

Since the reality is that gene banks are easily at risk due to natural disasters (e.g. Typhoon Xangsene in the Philippines in 2006), war (e.g. the Iraq War), and even poor management or funding, Svalbard was born to be humanity’s backup for when a catastrophe threatens the world’s crop supply, holding just about every seed known to the planet.

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What are the costs?

This global system requires $34 million a year, or an endowment fund of $850 million.

A $850 million endowment fund sounds ambitious even with funding from both the public and private sectors, but Haga remarked laughingly, “If we can spend over a billion dollars on a World Cup soccer stadium, seeking $850 million to save the world’s seed supply should be reasonable.”

Haga hopes that the money will go towards policies of prevention rather than reparation of agricultural damage.

“I notice that it’s hard for politicians to deal with long-term issues. The long-term issues are being forgotten more and more, as funds are being transferred to short-term issues. We end up repairing instead of preventing.”

She also said that they are starting to work with coffee companies, because doing so benefits both the business of the coffee companies and the goals of the Crop Trust.

“I think it’s absolutely important that we work with the private sector more.”

The Crop Trust is also pairing up with Deutsche Bank for an investment sharing facility related to food security.

So, even though we can’t retrieve what we have lost, we can most certainly protect what we have and make it available for future generations to come.

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