Question: I read an article about how corporate crop development systems are reducing the biodiversity of our food crops and setting us up for catastrophic crop failures. What is your opinion about these kinds of developments?
Answer: There is considerable controversy over implementation of the Endangered Species Act — such as protecting snails on the Snake River or spotted owls in Northwest forests. There is similar, although less publicized, concern about biodiversity of plants. There is concern that our crop species may become bred and selected down to such a narrow base that a single catastrophic disease could wipe out large crop production areas, causing widespread food shortages.
One of the most recent controversies concerns the splicing of genes from completely unrelated species into crop plants to create insect, disease and pesticide resistance. For example, crop varieties are now available which are not damaged by Roundup weed killer. Roundup can be sprayed over these varieties, killing all competing weeds, without damaging the crop. This reduces the cost of weed control and produces higher yields at lower cost.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in cooperation with several land grant universities have created seed storage laboratories or “seed banks” where seeds of older “heirloom” crop varieties are stored and grown out periodically to preserve a biodiverse germplasm for future use and protection. Organizations such as the Seed Saver’s Exchange have developed a large collection of heirloom vegetable and flower varieties available for purchase (seedsavers.org).
Those who promote the preservation of valuable older varieties sometimes attack professional plant breeders and their hybrid varieties as a threat to biodiversity of plants. On the contrary, commercial plant breeding and hybridization uncover characteristics which are not expressed in natural plant populations and actually increase diversity. Plant breeders are not only looking for greater yields but such qualities as resistance to diseases, better flavor, tenderness and easier harvest.
Many years ago I worked for Goldsmith Seed Company in California. Goldsmith Seeds was then one of the world's leaders in the development and production of new flower varieties.
One year, almost by accident, two different petunias were crossed together at Goldsmith's to create a new flower color never seen before. One petunia was lavender with darker purple veins. The other was bright scarlet red. The resulting hybrid was a glowing burgundy color with deep purple veins. Within three years, "Burgundy" became Goldsmith's top-selling petunia.
There is no separate gene for burgundy flower color in petunias. It can only be produced as a combination of lavender and red genes in a hybrid combination. It took several years for other competing seed companies to discover this unique combination. Goldsmith Seeds enjoyed several years of exclusive sales as a result of their creative effort. Now there are many burgundy colored petunias available for sale. It is still one of the most popular colors in petunias.
More recently, the Fantasy miniature petunias were developed by Goldsmith Seeds. Goldsmith discovered a unique gene causing a miniature sized plant and flowers. It was apparently a naturally occurring mutation. It required several years to incorporate this characteristic into a full range of colors. The Fantasy hybrid petunias have again increased the diversity and usefulness of petunias in landscape plantings.
As long as we maintain the public and private heirloom seed banks, we have nothing to fear from losing biodiversity because of corporate plant breeding programs.