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Review—Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity

Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney, 1990, University of Arizona Press

Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity discusses many aspects of the issue of preserving the genetic diversity of our planet's domesticated food plants and their wild ancestors. It will change how you view your relationship to food, and give new respect for the tenuous and yet powerfully resilient thread which connects us to Earth's food ecosystems.

Where Does Our Food Come From?

Fowler and Mooney discuss the origins of our domesticated agricultural plants in the distant past, as well as the origins and evolution of the much smaller number of plants and varieties we currently rely on for our world's food supplies. As an example of the lack of genetic diversity within our modern food plants, Fowler and Mooney point out that humans rely for the bulk of our sustenance on just 30 food plants out of the thousands of edible plants which exist—and just 9 food plants provide over 75% of the total calories consumed by humans. Furthermore, we continually rely on fewer and fewer varieties of those 30 plants, and on individual varieties which are less and less genetically diverse. Other examples include: the entire Latin American coffee industry uses trees propagated from a single coffee tree planted in Holland in 1706; four Nigerian palms comprise the entire genetic ancestry of the Asian palm oil industry; and until recently all potatoes grown in Europe came from two samples imported more than 400 years ago.

Politics of Conservation

The book discusses the politics of gene loss and preservation, noting that the official "...[genetic] conservation campaign has amounted to a drive to collect a few select eggs and place them in a single, tattered basket." It points out and underscores the weaknesses of cold-storage seed banks for preserving the rich diversity of existing food plants, placing the onus of responsibility for saving this diversity on the millions of small farmers and gardeners around the world. Fowler and Mooney suggest that, unless we begin once again to produce and save the seeds we need locally—instead of relying on commercial seed houses which offer smaller and smaller selections of seeds—our food supply's genetic diversity will continue to shrink rapidly as it has done over the last century.

Gene Splicing and Biodiversity

The role of genetic engineering in eroding genetic diversity is discussed, as gene splicers take individual genes responsible for protecting plants and put them into new varieties. In nature, these same genes offer effective protection to wild plants by acting in concert with complementary genes, mutually supporting and reinforcing each other's action. When these protective genes are individually isolated and used alone, however, they are easily overcome by evolving pests—often in as little as 4 or 5 years. In this way, genes which have evolved over millennia to be effective plant protectors are one by one being rendered ineffective and useless.

Ways We Can Help

Fowler and Mooney end by discussing ways each of us can have a powerful impact on genetic preservation, even helping to increase the genetic diversity of our locally grown plants. They discuss five fundamental principles necessary for the preservation of our food plants (see "Five Laws Of Genetic Conservation" in this issue), and end on a note of optimism and encouragement. As we each take steps to educate ourselves and take responsibility for even a fraction of the seeds we plant, we have a profound positive affect on whether our food plants are stewarded and preserved for our own, and future generations', use and enjoyment. We can all help!


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