The Odd Blog

And when our cubs grow / We'll show you what war is good for

Overspecialisation in food crops

Posted by That Other Mike on 21/02/2008

I was watching Ghost in The Shell again the other night. I do that sometimes when I find a new film that I like: I watch it over and over again, especially while I work out.

Major Kusunagi, the film’s main character, said something at one point; she was talking to Togusa, the rookie, about his his being chosen to join the team. Most of the rest of Section 9 are cybernetically enhanced; Togusa isn’t. She explains that they chose him for the fact that he’s mostly human, and the reason she gave resonated with me: overspecialisation is death. You breed in failure by overspecialising.

It was a contributory factor in the Irish Potato Famine, for example; for whatever reasons, the Irish ate mostly potatoes, and the potato blight naturally hit them very hard.

Cuba’s economy was devastated by their reliance on one major source of income crop –sugar cane, bought by the USSR– which naturally sold in far smaller amounts after 1991, the blockade notwithstanding, and there is a reason that the term “banana republic” is pejorative outside of its political connotations.

While the linking factors of anime, food and political terminology may not be entirely obvious at first glance, this is all vaguely relevant. More or less.

As is my habit, I was trawling through BBC News for interesting bits and bobs upon which to rest my weary pupils… Hang on, I seem to have gone vaguely Victorian. Ahem. A-hem. Ahem. Lalalalalaaaaaaaa… OK. I was looking at BBC News for interesting stories when this caught my eye:

Woman harvesting millet

Rediscovering the forgotten crops

Over the last century about 75% of the world’s crop varieties have been lost, data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests.

UN researchers say that we now rely on just three crops: wheat, rice and maize.

The story rightly gives the impression that too much specialisation in the area of food crops is going on. This kind of overspecialisation results in the destablised economies of the Third World becoming even more precarious, as they become dependent upon single crops for export; while a rise in price can mean that everyone gets a nice windfall, the slump of the following month means everyone goes hungry while piles of cash crops moulder and rot, the whole country’s economy tanks and so on.

As the article mentions, growing environmental instability will also likely result in the three crops becoming more difficult to farm in certain areas which now depend upon them, and suggests growing more traditional, hardier crops as a means of getting around this.

On the other hand, simply producing local-friendly food crops leaves the country with very little to trade with internationally, and the idea given by Professor Azam-Ali is a good one: encouraging farmers to grow their crops while giving them the opportunity to process them into more commercially-friendly forms gives more environmentally- and economically-sound solutions. It is possible for us in the West to use its greater knowledge and experience of industrial processes to at least ameliorate or even perhaps undo some of the harm we have done previously and continue to do.

In the end, this might be the best way to ensure the future of fair trading: exporting knowledge.

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2 Responses to “Overspecialisation in food crops”

  1. eyegillian said

    Good article – interesting subject. A related aspect to overspecialization is the throttle-hold seed conglomerates have over what actually gets planted in the western world. The top 10 commercial seed companies now control a third of all world seed sales. If you use their seed, you can’t even collect the seed yourself or plant anything other than the company variety. Fifty years ago, 30,000 different species of wheat were grown in India. Today, nearly all of it comes from just 10 varieties. If all local farms (not that “family” farms can survive anymore) end up planting with the same kind of engineered seed, and a new wave of whatever blights the crop, who ends up paying for the loss? And where does the new blight-resistant strain of seed come from? If we’re lucky, from the heritage seed that somebody is still growing… It’s a wonder, between the banks and the corporations, that anyone still bothers. (Check out the article here)

  2. Mike said

    Hi, and thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

    Variability (or lack thereof) is exactly the issue at hand; it’s about time someone took it seriously.

    Not to mention terminator seeds, which just drive me up the wall.

    Fixed your link, too 🙂

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