Monday, April 3, 2017

On Monocultures

Out of the accumulations of his tilling came civilization. Civilization is the agricultural surplus.                                                                                                                                      H.G. Wells
It’s a strange quirk of modern life that food should cease to be a concern. Obviously there exists hunger and want in the world, but the planet is currently capable of feeding its population. It is quite recent, that most people no longer need to till the fields, with automation making it possible for a bare handful to feed a city. This capability is more precarious than people realize. So, let’s talk about monocultures. Let’s talk about Rust.
Plant rust. It's a fungus, not oxidation.

It’s not a secret that industrial-scale agriculture has changed how and what we consume. Just compare an actual fresh tomato to whatever is you can buy in average supermarket. The details of mass-scale food transportation are interesting, fruits and vegetables are picked unripe, shipped, and artificially ripened later. The necessity of the process informs the available varieties, and the non-existence of others. It’s interesting stuff, but a non-surface level summary is beyond the scope of this post. At this point, an extraordinary majority of food consumed is of only a few different cultivars.

Imagining a counter-example, where every single edible plant in the supermarket was like buying apples (Granny Smith, Mcintosh, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fugi, Honeycrisp, Empire, etc.). Apples are an example in another way, as there are thousands of distinct apple cultivars, but just 15 varieties account for over 90% of production. Most of our plants do not have as many commercially viable cultivars, and so most people know only the one.

But let’s get to the meat of this thing, let’s talk about the banana. Specifically, the Gros Michel banana.
Unlike most people with the initials DK, I do not enjoy bananas.

Gros Michel bananas were the banana, with wide commercial planting (ref. “Banana republics”), the subject of popular song(s), and widely agreed to taste more “Banana-y” than the Grand Nain bananas we currently enjoy (the artificial Banana flavoring tastes more like a Gros Michel than a Grand Nain). The only reason they replaced them with these other, inferior, bananas, is because they had to.

In the 1950s, Panama disease destroyed the commercial production of Gros Michel bananas. It’s a fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, it attacks the roots of the plant, and can live in the soil for up to 30 years. It’s everywhere and, like the current Grand Nain cultivar, Gros Michel bananas are highly similar genetically (most banana plants are clippings, they’ve been bred to have no seeds). So, a highly infectious fungus capable of taking down one can quickly and easily spread.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. The current monoculture of banana is under threat from a slightly different fungus, though at present quarantine has been effective at preventing it from interfering with central American banana production.

If this was a problem localized to bananas, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I do not like bananas. You can lose them all, as far as I care. Unfortunately, many if not most of our food crop strains at significant risk for fungi and other diseases.

Nor is the Gros Michel the first example of a lost food staple. Just a handful of decades earlier, the American chestnut tree (of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” fame) became functionally extinct following the accidental introduction of an Asian fungus. Billions of enormous trees, a fixture in the American landscape, and a central ingredient in American cuisine, rotted and died within decades.

Fungi are hard to fight. The spores are airborne, can live in the soil for decades, and can grow (harmlessly) on other plants. Even if you had an American chestnut, you couldn’t grow it. Even today, newly planted saplings only get a few meters high before the fungus takes them.

Another historical example is the Irish Potato Famine, which was caused by (surprise!) another fungus. Modern growers still struggle with the blight, as it is difficult for potatoes to develop immunity. Fungicides are used, though as I’ve previously noted with antibiotics, they are at best a temporary solution.

I know I’m belaboring the point, but realize that this is not meant to be as alarmist as some posts. The potato famine was a unique situation, where 2/5ths of the population were completely reliant on a single crop. The west, at least, is extremely unlikely to starve if one or more of the major world crops fail.

It’s just frustrating that we’ve even put ourselves in this situation. What happens if rust takes, say, coffee? Or wheat? Sustainability is one of those nasty buzzwords, but in this case, it’s important. We’ve needlessly threatened our food supply, and at the current rate of population growth, we may run into Malthus eventually, even without fungal assistance. (Though environmental contaminants can accomplish similar outcomes; New York and London used to be oyster towns until the pollution killed them off)

At this point, I’m assuming everyone comes here for doom and gloom, so I’ll throw in a little something extra: the troubles we’re having with monocultures is a rounding error compared to what will happen if we lose the bees.
This was a little harder to read than I'd like.
The top left text says "number of honey producing bee colonies"
and the other says "Parasitic mites introduced into U.S"

But even this isn't all bad, despite some species bee-coming endangered, it would seem like beekeepers are managing to stay ahead of colony collapses, which is encouraging news.

So, good news, I was definitely reaching on this one; it is not a threat on par with some of the others I’ve written about. It’ll be uncomfortable, sure, but even if commercial agriculture fails, the bees go extinct, we fish out the ocean, and all the monocultures rust away... even if we all end up eating nothing but yeast, humanity will still be alive. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, honeybees are protected by the dedicated efforts of commerical beekeepers, but actually the native, wild bees do most of the pollination responsible for most of our fruits and vegetables. Wild bees make honey bees more productive, and many plants cannot be pollinated by honeybees. -Kate