Genetic diversity: a gift from the past, a legacy for the future

José Esquinas-Alcázar, secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Photo: L. Spaventa

Globalization and agricultural intensification are two of the topics to be discussed this week at FAO headquarters in Rome by the Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture. This independent body was established in 2000 by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf to advise FAO on key ethical issues in food and agriculture and to raise public awareness of ethical considerations. The topic of globalization is timely because some argue that the integration of global consumer demand leads to the loss of genetic resources. José Esquinas-Alcázar, chair of the FAO Sub-Committee on Ethics in Food and Agriculture and secretary of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, talks about these issues.

How does globalization affect genetic resources?

I will answer that by telling you a story. One day in rural Spain in 1970 an old farmer with a donkey met a young student collecting melon seeds. The old farmer asked the young student what he was doing, and the young student explained that he wanted to identify Spain’s native melons before they died out.

"Come and see my melons," said the old farmer. "They never get diseases." The young student followed the old farmer to his farm. The old farmer gave him some seeds, and the young student took them to a lab for analysis. The seeds contained a gene resistant to a melon fungus, and this gene was transferred to other melons and helped farmers around the world.

I was that young student, but I don’t know who the old man was. He is like millions of other men and women. No one ever thanks them, but it’s they who have the wisdom to develop and preserve their seeds and traditions for future generations.

This Spanish farmer’s fungus-resistant melon genes helped farmers across the world
Photo: J. Esquinas-Alcázar

Today farmers are producing not just for their own needs but for mass markets. Many have substituted modern seeds for traditional ones. These modern seeds are more productive, but they are also more vulnerable because they are uniform and not adapted precisely to the ecosystem where they are grown.

What does this mean for us?

I think you should ask what it means for our children. Globalization and economic integration are a consequence of nations’ and regions’ growing interdependence. This increases the threat to the diversity of genetic resources just as it does to the diversity of cultures and economic systems. This interdependence is not only geographical and economic -- it is also between generations and between biotechnology and biodiversity.

Agricultural biodiversity is a vital inheritance from previous generations. We have a moral obligation to pass it on intact to our children so that they can face unpredictable environmental changes and changing human needs.

Because of population growth, we and coming generations will have to intensify agricultural production. They will have more biotechnologies to choose from, but without biodiversity their options will be limited. Biodiversity provides the raw material -- genetic resources -- and biotechnology provides the tool to combine this raw material into commercial varieties.

Is genetic diversity under serious threat?

Half of the world’s food today comes from just four plant species and five animal species -- and within those species there has been a tremendous loss of genetic diversity. We have to make sure that future generations have enough genetic diversity to sustain intensified agricultural production.

In the 1970s, when Spain was just beginning intensive melon production for export, I collected around 370 varieties of melons. Rabbits ate 11 plants, and when I went back to the farmers a few years later for more seeds, over half of those varieties were no longer grown. In the space of just a few years we had lost irreplaceable genetic resources.

Mr Esquinas-Alcázar talks about how nineteenth-century Ireland’s dependence on a limited genetic resource -- one variety of potato -- undermined the country’s food security
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Mr Esquinas-Alcázar explains why it is important to discuss the issue of ethics in food and agriculture
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Spain is currently Europe’s largest producer of melons, but just six or seven varieties satisfy the entire market, so farmers have stopped growing other kinds. Put my farmer in a developing country, where people are living in much more fragile environments and economies, and you can see how a lack of genetic choice limits subsistence strategies.

Moreover, the poorest countries are also the richest in terms of the genetic diversity needed to ensure human survival. So the loss of biodiversity for the poorest peasant today undermines the food security of every child tomorrow. Because once genetic material is lost, we cannot get it back.

This is where ethics comes in?

Exactly. The right to food is a universal right that pertains to future generations as well as ours. This is an ethical issue. Today we have the technology to feed our world, but millions of people go hungry every day. Our generation has powerful tools, including biotechnologies and information technologies. But we are like passengers on an airplane -- in our case the planet earth -- who hear the pilot announce that although he is going very fast, he is also lost.

Do we just sit back and let the plane go anywhere? Or even crash? Or do we organize, give direction and demand accountability? In other words, do we apply ethical considerations to our journey?

I believe we must. And FAO Member States showed that they are also concerned about this issue -- which is one of the reasons why they negotiated and approved the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This will enter into force as soon as 40 countries have ratified it. The treaty contains a provision upholding farmers’ rights to share equitably the benefits derived from husbanding biodiversity. My old Spanish farmer is probably long dead by now, but I like to think of this treaty as his legacy to his grandchildren. Along with extraordinary melons, of course.

18 March 2002

  Press release: Ethics Panel holds second session - Globalization and agricultural intensification on top of agenda


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