This is a guest post by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity.


Southern Africa, 2030. A throng of emaciated people waits for food rations to arrive. The maize crop has failed, devastated by hot weather and drought. Yet again. A "food crisis?" Yes. That’s what we’ll call it in 22 years.

But not today. If we want to do something about future food crises, we should name them today, and name them properly. Problems unnamed or improperly named are problems left unsolved.

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In many cases, what we call food crises are more precisely thought of as crop-diversity crises. That’s what history’s most famous "food crisis" — the Irish potato famine — really was.

A paper recently published Science — abstract here — by a group of scholars with whom the Crop Diversity Trust collaborates, predicts a drop in maize (corn) yields of 30 percent in southern Africa by 2030 as a result of climate change, unless new climate-ready varieties of maize are developed. A huge drop in production of the region’s most important food crop will bring instant famine.

Breeding a new variety of maize — one sufficiently drought and heat tolerant to cope with predicted new climates — can take 10 years. This means we’re only two complete crop breeding cycles away from the disaster foreseen in the Science article.

From the crop’s perspective, therefore, the time to act is now. The financial crisis is an acknowledged crisis, because it is in today’s headlines and because we are paying the price now.

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But no policy maker, no TV newscaster, no philanthropist can name the crop-diversity crisis, and the failure to name a coming disaster is a real and huge obstacle to mobilizing the will and the resources to solve it.

Crop-diversity crises lead to food crises. Thus it makes sense to look at the situation from the crop’s perspective, because if crops don’t adapt, neither do we. However, plant breeding can only be as successful as the resources upon which it draws — the genetic diversity of our crops.

These are the colors on the palette of the plant breeder, the genes that code for drought tolerance, pest resistance, higher protein content, and everything else. Typically, the most threatened diversity is located in seed banks in developing countries.

The seed samples they are “conserving” are often of varieties no longer grown in any farmer’s field. The last remnants of a completely unique wheat or maize or tomato are in seed that can be held in the palm of your hands.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is partnering with those facilities to rescue the endangered varieties and deposit duplicate seeds of each variety in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In the next few years this effort will rescue 100,000 varieties from the brink of extinction.

It is quite possibly the biggest effort to rescue endangered biodiversity in history.

Not a bad beginning if you want to get agriculture ready for what’s coming. The next step is to put in place the funding needed to conserve this diversity, crop by crop.

Conserving the entire gene pool of maize forever would require an endowment of about $35 million. That’s roughly the same amount the National Science Foundation dispensed to sequence the maize genome, an investment made, surely, on the assumption that the full gene pool would be available. So why has the conservation of crop diversity not received the attention and support it’s due? First and most fundamentally, we are hardwired to deal with immediate threats, not ones that lie even a few years or decades out.

Moreover new crises appear to displace old but still-unresolved crises. The food crisis has been — quite predictably — pushed off the front page by the financial crisis. All successful politicians know the advantage of defining the issues, seizing symbols, and engaging the opposition on your terms.

But, as observed above, our crop diversity crisis remains effectively nameless. We who work with crop diversity bear some responsibility. For too long, many of us ailed to articulate an inspiring vision, a “solution” linked to a timetable.

In 1961, John Kennedy went before the U.S. Congress and famously stated:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

Kennedy understood the necessity of articulating a vision linked with a timetable. In the same speech, just moments earlier, he told the nation:

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Kennedy could have been talking about conserving crop diversity.

Eight years Kennedy’s famous speech, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. We are now ready for an equally critical launch. There is an internationally agreed plan and legal framework for conserving crop diversity.

Willing partners stand ready. Political will and vision at high levels will be needed to complete the task; a modern day Kennedy might consider it a worthy assignment.

In the next eight years we can secure all crop diversity, forever. We can get agriculture ready for climate change. For drought. For the next disease. For more mouths to feed. We can do this and more, but only if we are willing to shoot for the moon. Now.