One concern about trying to tame nature from the very beginning of humankind is that becoming dependent on a few crops is a big risk for society.
Many learn about famines in school, like the Irish Potato Blight , which saw a large migration from a centuries-old society caused by a disease that affected the staple crop of many diets.
The demise of the potato caused starvation to plague Ireland, and many were forced to leave their ancestral homes to go somewhere, anywhere, that could better sustain them.
What’s less known is the fact that we’re risking similar food shortages in the modern era, as cultivators concentrate on the strains that offer the biggest yields and are the most commercially viable.
In addition to the intentional choices of the major growers, unintentional acts are also having an effect. From the age of exploration to the period of modern globalization, new types of plants or animals have been introduced in settings where they thrive without natural predators and quickly dominate the landscape, crowding out the local wildlife.
Globalization has had another effect on crop diversification. Pressure increases for countries to produce food for export as tastes and preferences start to spread across borders.
Local crops and techniques become less important and marginalized in favor of what’s important to the bigger markets. Gradually, small-scale, diverse food systems get swallowed up by bigger players.
Another danger is the one that occurs not between species, but within species. Crops have been genetically modified to produce higher yields and a more durable product, causing certain strains to dominate the landscape.
A farm that has been growing corn for generations may be pressured to replace their local seed with one that does not occur where they are naturally, because of the potential for extra revenue or because of perceived marketplace demands.
For a product like corn, for example, that means much of the global production is far less diverse than in previous generations, and more concentrated in a few strains.
If those prove vulnerable to a new threat, or prove to have modifications that are detrimental over time, there will be a much larger affect on their availability than a similar problem would have had previously when such crops were less prevalent.
This was less of a danger in caveman times, for a variety of reasons. For starters, cavemen were more mobile, and generally followed the crops or the animals when they moved. It wasn’t like there was a huge mortgage binding them to a particular spot of ground—they took their cues from nature.
Early farmers grew whatever occurred naturally in their areas, inadvertently finding hardy crops that fit both their palates and their environs. Though they didn’t produce the volume of crops that today’s superfarms do, we may soon find that the risks in the old approach were far, far less severe as well.
Alfablue, December 2011