Modern seed companies are reducing crop diversity – and this could have serious consequences for food supply as the climate heats up, researchers claimed at the World Seed Conference in Rome this week.
This is the second time in a week that researchers have raised fears about the impact of climate change on crops. According to a study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, climate change could result in severe shortages of two of America’s most important grains – corn and soy. Although yields increase with temperature up to 29C for corn and 30C for soybeans, there is a sharp decline in yield above these thresholds, they said.
Now fresh concerns have been raised that food manufacturers could find it more difficult to source ingredients in the future, as researchers from the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) have suggested that large-scale seed companies could squeeze out traditional plant breeding.
The researchers argue that corporate control of the seed industry and widespread use of a relatively small number of seed varieties could mean that traditionally bred varieties for drought and pest resistance could be lost, with devastating consequences for food supply.
IIED project leader Krystyna Swiderska said: “Where farming communities have been able to maintain their traditional varieties, they are already using them to cope with the impacts of climate change. But more commonly, these varieties are being replaced by a smaller range of “modern” seeds that are heavily promoted by corporations and subsidized by governments. These seeds have less genetic diversity yet need more inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers and more natural resources such as land and water.”
The IIED claims that one situation in which plant breeding programs are proving useful for small-scale farmers is in southwestern China. There, a program called Participatory Plant Breeding has led to research partnerships between farmers and breeders, in which farmers and plant breeders share profits and knowledge.
Jingsong Li of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in China said: “Traditional seed varieties are critical to help Chinese farmers adapt to climate change. At the same time, this biological diversity is under threat from problems such as drought, floods, pests and diseases, which climate change may promote. For these reasons, farmers are keen to improve their varieties through Participatory Plant Breeding.”
The IIED argued that small-scale farmers need more protection in order to continue farming using traditional plant breeding methods.