7 October 2016
By Ian Street, Research Associate at Dartmouth College
Seeds for the future
This is a story where people died to preserve plants for future generations. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is the scientist at the centre of this story and his legacy is still present today in the preservation and capturing of crop plants’ genetic diversity.
Dandelion seeds take flight, distributing themselves to secure their future (Image source)
Setting the stage
Humans directly consume a small subset of nature’s diversity to fuel our civilization while being 100% reliant on the rest of the plant world.
When humans started farming ~10,000 years ago, a small number of species were domesticated. Farming (eventually) provided a surplus of food and ways to store harvests over winter were developed. This freed people to focus on other activities resulting in our current world where fewer people need to be farmers (~2% of people in the US). However, food security remains the backbone of a healthy economy.
If food security wobbles, so do we– and those struggling to create a food surplus, like many in the developing world, are most vulnerable. An example of why we need plant genetic diversity is finding a solution to the current strain of panama disease quickly moving around the world infecting the single Cavendish banana variety which comprises the majority of commercial production.
Measures to ensure a diverse, and robust, food system for the present and future are a not just public good activities they are global necessities.