BOULDER, Colo., April 5 (UPI) -- The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which is to go into effect June 29, is a major effort to ensure the sustainability of global agriculture.
The European Union and 12 of its members have ratified the the treaty -- the U.S. signed the pact in 2002.
"This is a legally binding treaty that will be crucial for the sustainability of agriculture," said Jacques Diouf, director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. "The treaty is an important contribution to the achievement of the World Food Summit's major objective of halving the number of hungry people by 2015."
Other observers said, however, the terms of the treaty are vague and the critical provisions needed to protect agricultural diversity still must be worked out.
Since the beginning of agricultural society -- around 8,500 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East -- there has been a steady decline in genetic variability in the crops that feed the world. Over the past 10 millennia, farmers have cultivated about 10,000 species in food and fodder production. Today, only about 150 crops feed most humans, and just 12 provide 80 percent of the world's food.
Worse, only four -- wheat, rice, maize and potatoes -- sustain 60 percent of human consumption.
Reliance on so few crops offers a potential avenue for global agricultural disaster. If some virulent bug or genetic disease invades an important species -- by natural evolution or act of terror -- world food supplies can be threatened.
"Perhaps the most famous catastrophe was the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. It has been attributed to potato blight Phytophtora infestans, to which the genetically similar Irish potatoes were susceptible," wrote Charles Hutchinson and Eric Weiss of the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture in a paper on plant genetic resources.
More recent crop failures with similar causes have occurred in the United States and in the former Soviet Union.
In the United States, 80 percent of the oat crop was lost in the 1940s due to a single pest. Corn blight wiped out a large part of the nation's corn crop in the 1970s. Disaster struck a high-yield Soviet winter wheat crop in 1972, causing severe food shortages there.
Ironic, but some of the poorest tropical and subtropical countries retain the highest genetic variability in their crops, the result of the difference between the commercial agriculture of industrialized countries and the subsistence agriculture of poorer ones.
"Most of the modern varieties that are grown in industrial agriculture have been intentionally made much less diverse than the varieties that were grown by traditional farmers," said Paul Thompson, W.K. Kellogg professor of agricultural, food and community ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
"If you're farming industrially, you want the crops to mature at the same time, harvest them all in one day, have a uniform height, and other things your are looking for with respect to yield and quality," Thompson told United Press International.
"All of those things tend to reduce diversity within the crops themselves," he said. "Traditional farmers may have had them mature at different times. There are reasons why that was a good thing. The variability gives you protection against variations in climate, for instance."
To a certain extent, Thompson said, the only way to preserve the genetic diversity of crops is to farm the traditional way. Even by saving seeds or maintaining gene banks, evolutionary selection pressures are lost.
"There may be dynamic things happening in the environment that growing a plant year after year creates an ongoing adjustment. If you pull out seeds that have been sitting in a drawer for 20 or 40 years, they may or may not have the kind of diversity that you would hope to have under diverse natural conditions."
Of the treaty, Thompson said: "I think it's not at all clear what it means to anybody. Broadly the idea is that we are supposed to be trying to conserve biodiversity at the genetic level. That's reasonably clear. It can get kind of murky in the details. It's not at all clear what the treaty commits people to do. I suspect that even when the treaty was signed, that would be the work of implementing the treaty to figure that out."
Steps should be taken on three levels to protect this diversity, Norbert Henninger, the World Resources Institute's deputy director of information programs, told UPI.
-- First, establish large gene banks -- which already has been done in the United States, China and Russia -- to save some of the genes that have been lost in the industrialization of agriculture. During the Green Revolution, scientists were aware this genetic narrowing would occur and created these banks.
-- Second, provide a commercial climate that protects incentive to diversify. In Peru and Bolivia, for instance, farmers plant 180 different varieties of potatoes to deal with different environmental challenges, while in Columbia, there are perhaps 10.
-- Third, require some form of protection for the wild ancestors of the food crops. This would involve either large protected areas -- a strategy Henninger said conservationists are moving away from in developing countries -- or at least protecting small, greenbelt-style areas with agricultural regions to preserve habitat for the wild ancestors.
"It's a hedge to diversify your risk," Henninger explained. "If there is an increase in commercialization will we wipe out these local varieties? You can make more money, and people need to improve their livelihoods. They don't maintain local varieties just because it is a nice thing to do."
Henninger, who was the project director of the Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems, said the best way to protect genetic variety at this level is probably to find direct markets for the products.
A news release by the U.N.'s FAO said only: "Access to a wide range of genetic resources will make possible the development of a greater variety of food products, which will improve the lives and diets of consumers in both rural and urban areas. The treaty will institute, for the first time, a multilateral system of facilitated access and benefits-sharing for the crops and forages most important for food security."
Dan Whipple covers the environment for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org