The Baobab, the Banana, the Bond Lair, and the Bee

Seeds and plants aren’t everyone’s favourite subjects to chat about, unless gardening is on the agenda for the weekend. However, agrobiodiversity, which includes everything from crop diversity and farming practices to rare seeds and plants, as well as predators, pests, native animals and plants, could be set to hit your news feed very soon.  If we aren’t careful precious crops and plants that are critical to human growth could be in danger of devastation, and even extinction, due to a host of worrying and partly man-made problems.

Preserving the habitat of plants, especially crops, in ecosystems around the world is critical to our survival. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a researcher working in the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean, presented a TED talk Humble plants that hold surprising secrets in October last year where she suggested that our ignorance to the importance of preserving biodiversity could result in the human race missing out on valuable cosmetic, medicinal and nutritious derivatives offered by plants in the region. Just one extraordinary example is the African species of Baobab Tree which is in danger of extinction: its fruit is filled with more protein than breast milk, its seeds have a stable body oil sought after by the cosmetics industry, the leaves can be used in medicines for infectious diseases, and its trunk can conserve up to 5000L of water.

Lack of public support for GMO technology in commercial farming and reliance on a select few cultivars in crops like nuts and fruits might provoke a worldwide disaster which results in human poverty and famine. Bananas are a great example of this issue; only one cultivar of banana, the Cavendish, is grown in commercial plantations for major supermarket distribution, despite the fact that it is highly susceptible to disease and doesn’t taste as good as other species, according to Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (2008).

Despite the lessons that banana exporters should have learnt from the worldwide collapse of the Gros Michel banana cultivar due to Panama Disease in the 1960s, banana companies are still not investing in GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) or alternative types of bananas as a way to fight back against the disease and expand the industry. For Australia, this problem is a double edged sword, according to the Australian Bananas ‘Bananas- a short history’ web page. On the one hand, fear of disease and pests attacking the vulnerable Cavendish has kept all supermarkets and groceries across the nation buying exclusively from Australian plantations. However, because Australian farmers and produce buyers are fearful of imports and disease, Australian shoppers are generally limited to buying a small range of banana cultivars, missing out on the incredible array of sweet and savoury bananas e.g. the Plaintain, a banana used like a potato in cooking in a huge range of South American food.

Genetic engineering is an excellent way to preserve biodiversity and help humans profit and grow. In an interview with Jeremy Berlin from National Geographic in May 2015, organic farmer, plant pathologist and geneticist Pamela Ronald confirms that not only does the world need crop biodiversity to prosper, but also genetically modified cultivars, which reduce the need for pesticides. Ronald has successfully engineered genes that, when inserted into existing vulnerable breeds of rice, help plants to survive climate change effects like flooding, as well as being able to resist a specific type of aggressive bacteria which destroys rice crops in Asia and Africa. This development has helped prevent small-scale farmers and their communities from starvation, as well as keeping rice production at levels able to supply the global population.

There are also more drastic measures being put into motion by biodiversity organisations and concerned governments globally. The Svalbard Seed Vault is one such measure. The vault, built like a Swedish bond villain’s evil lair, is hidden away underground in the permafrost of a Norwegian island. It lies in wait for delegates from countries all over the world to deposit their contribution to humanity’s safeguard of seeds which could help regenerate important food crops in the event of an international disaster. According to the Guardian’s environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg in The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world (May 2015), the vault currently has almost 500 000 seed samples, replicated from collections in a diverse range of countries, stored inside two of the three rooms, which are designed to hold up to 4.5 million samples. This vault may be useful to agricultural organisations in countries that do not currently have seed vaults, in less extreme global events such as disease outbreaks in crops when less popular heirloom varieties are needed to compensate for the widespread cultivation of single-species crops, like the Cavendish banana.

However we may not be able to solve our agro-biodiversity problems with large-scale solutions like the seed vault if we lose the critical mass of the world’s bee populations. The issue of lack of crop biodiversity isn’t just hurting our future growth, but also the growth of the pollinators who keep our crops alive and thriving today. Lack of variety in our human diets can cause serious dietary issues, and the same thing is happening to bees; with giant monocultures like nuts, berries and other fruits dominating agriculture, the bee cannot access a wide range of pollen and nectar sources. This problem is just one of the main causes of the alarming Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, first identified in 2006. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, this disorder has also been attributed to viruses, parasites, and the heavy agricultural use of neonicotinoid pesticides which cause premature bee deaths and weaken swarms. In an LA Times report on honey-bee deaths (May 2015), Geoffrey Mohan cites new USDA figures which suggest that ‘managed honeybee colonies suffered annual losses of 42%, with summer declines outstripping winter losses for the first time.’ Declining honeybee numbers mean more expensive and lower yielding crops for farmers everywhere, as large agricultural operations are now forced to rent honey-bee swarms in order to pollinate their crops, which is increasingly expensive and can cost one industry e.g. almond growers, $292 million for one year in one state. Most people don’t even realise how vital bees are to the food industry; without bee pollination of crops, the coffee beans that flavour your morning beverage wouldn’t reach Australia, and the ‘fresh produce’ section of the supermarket would be very bare.

Without diverse species and genetic engineering, and without the pollination of your favourite fruits and vegetables by the all-important bee, the world is going to be a very different place in the future. With any luck, GMOs will change the agricultural biodiversity for the better, and we won’t need to open the seed vault for a very long time.