While seed and crop samples accumulate in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the rest of our food supply chain is under fire from various sources. The constant state of environmental changes, monoculture (brought on by the industrial revolution), natural disasters and diseases are impairing the future sustainability of many of our modern-day food crops.
Studies show that chocolate is the most popular sweet in the world with the global consumption in 2022 at roughly 7.5 million tons. Many factors affect the health and growth of the cacao plant, which produces the main ingredient for this delectable dessert. This tropical tree grows within the narrow equator band of 20° N to 20° S where there is high humidity and rich soil. This small area of fruitful land has been dwindling away. A study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture states, “The implications are that the suitability within the current cocoa-growing areas will decrease seriously by 2050.”
The craze for avocados has placed a sizeable demand on water resources. Depending on the region, it can take anywhere from one to 86 gallons of water to grow one avocado. During the summer, each tree requires 18 to 23 gallons of water per day. In 2019, California used 2.3 trillion gallons of water for growing avocados. In Mexico, due to the high demand for this lucrative crop, pine forests and fir trees are being cut down and replaced with avocado orchards. The destruction of these natural habitats, by clearing native trees, the use of high levels of agricultural chemicals, and the huge drain on the water table, wreak havoc on wildlife and humans alike.
Bananas are another popular fruit in danger of disappearing. The Gros Michel was once the premiere banana choice. One person described it like this, “They are so delicious that regular Cavendish bananas are disgusting by comparison.” But when the Panama disease ravaged through plantations around the world, nearly all crops were devastated. The Cavendish quickly became the number one replacement. Now, 99 percent of supermarket bananas are of the Cavendish variety. Limiting the genetic diversity once again re-spawns a deadly adversary, a single disease.
Because the mass production of bananas is confined to a single variety, a single fungus or disease can easily spread through the crops like wildfire. Panama disease TR4 started decimating the Cavendish line in the 2010s. In 2019, TR4 spread to the Western Hemisphere. Since there were no acceptable replacement cultivars at the time, genetic engineering may be used for the next line of bananas.
Time.com/5730790 stated, “Genetic engineering can lead to the development of new varieties at much faster rates than traditional breeding methods, but it can also turn consumers off. However, it has been the answer to similar problems in the past—for example, when the papaya ringspot virus threatened the papaya supply in the 1990s, the major supply shock was averted through the development of a transgenic ringspot virus-resistant papaya,” explains Cornell’s Barrett.
He believes that consumers’ fears might ease if it becomes one of the only viable answers to the issues created by monoculture production.”
Many of today’s supermarket strawberries are pleasing to the eye but pale in comparison to the savoy goodness of some of the nearly extinct heirloom varieties. Fruits that do not store or travel well cannot compete with the uniformity and resilience of the newer mass-produced flavorless fruits. Not only have we sacrificed flavor for convenience, but in doing so, many succulent varieties are dying off.
Referring to historical U.S. records in comparison to the modern-day apple varieties, nearly 90 percent are gone. From a staggering 17,000 different varieties down to about 4,500, with a mere 15 varieties dominating up to 90 percent of all U.S. apple production. The good news is that, in a single season, 10 varieties, thought to have been lost forever, has been rediscovered and are being revived. Volunteers with the Lost Apple Project scavenge through abandoned orchards across the Pacific Northwest in search of varieties thought to be extinct or lost.
As natural environmental changes continue their course, the importance of preserving as many heirloom food varieties as possible becomes paramount. These older varieties may not produce the biggest and prettiest produce, but their resilience to adapt to different grow regions can keep the species from extinction. Also, having a wider biodiversity creates healthier and stronger plants, not to mention more taste variations and nutrients. Even if plants are not mass produced, it is imperative to sustain a wide range of real food species so there is something to fall back on when one of the newly developed hybrids is wiped out.