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Of Pandas and Peas: Saving the Diversity Within Species

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It was an inauspicious beginning.

Days after the international community failed to establish legally binding measures to halt climate change, the UN launched the International Year of Biodiversity. Scientists predict climate change will directly imperil one-fourth of the Earth's species.

In the coming months, you can expect to hear about charismatic mega-fauna -- whales, tigers, gorillas, pandas, etc. -- as well as the diversity of species found in the oceans and tropical forests. You'll be exposed to the organizations devoted to saving them. Most of all you will be told about the threat of extinction. The issue of "endangered species" has dominated the biodiversity narrative since the 1980s when the termed entered into common usage.

To many people, "biodiversity" is almost synonymous with the word "nature," and "nature" brings to mind steamy forests and the big creatures that dwell there. Fair enough. But biodiversity is much more than that, for it encompasses not only the diversity of species, but also the diversity within species. It includes not only wild species and their diversity, but domesticated species and their diversity.

It is the diversity within species that keeps species going. This is the diversity upon which natural selection works, the diversity that fuels adaptation and evolution for everything from pandas to peas. Unless we appreciate the critical role that intra-species biodiversity plays in the survival of species, we risk seeing extinction as a numbers game, as something that happens when the last individual dies. Extinction, however, is a process, not an event. It effectively occurs not when the last individual dies, but when the species loses the ability to adapt successfully. After that, it's just a waiting game for the last individual to succumb. No species gets a free pass. In the game of life, less diversity means fewer options for change. Wild or domesticated, panda or pea, adaptation is the requirement for survival.

People and Plants

Whether we consciously realize it or not, the biodiversity with which we are most familiar, and the biodiversity with which we have most intimate historical, cultural and biological connections, is that associated with food plants. We all know that apples come in red, yellow and green models, and we know some of the varietal names. But how many people realize that there are thousands of distinct varieties of potatoes, tens of thousands of varieties of beans, hundreds of thousands of types of wheat, and even more of rice?

This diversity, this cornucopia of genes, has arisen and persisted in large part because of the ancient and ongoing tie between peoples and plants. Farmers and more formally trained plant breeders use the diversity found in wheat and other crops to improve the yields, disease and pest resistance of the varieties in use today. The process of varietal improvement is continuous. The bread you eat today is undoubtedly made from different varieties of wheat than 25 years ago, as new varieties have been continuously developed for higher yield and to stay one step ahead of ever-evolving pests and diseases.

Nevertheless, when we think about biodiversity, we rarely think about food. The word "biodiversity" doesn't appear in Culinary Artistry, an interesting book I recently read about food and cooking traditions. Yet the book, of course, is all about the interplay between cultural and biological diversity.

What is it that makes one cuisine distinct from another? Which foods and spices are strongly associated with a particular cuisine? What makes Thai food "Thai" as opposed to Italian? It doesn't necessarily have to do with where the crops were originally domesticated. So many key ingredients are immigrants!

Spicy Thai dishes with chilies and peanuts employ ingredients of American origin. Italy's pasta and China's noodles depend on wheat that was first domesticated in the Near East. Nordics love their (Andean) potatoes. And quintessentially Brazilian ingredients such as black beans, garlic, lime, rice, scallions, are historical imports with the possible exception of the beans.

Spices have traveled far and wide too, fueling an international trade that stretches back millennia. Today, cumin, from the upper Nile area, figures prominently in cuisines from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Middle East, Morocco, Spain, Thailand, and Tunisia.

The number of crops we use for food is impressive enough, but the diversity within those crops is particularly notable for both agronomic and cultural reasons. Like other biodiversity, however, it is endangered.

Plants and animals are not waiting for the next IPCC report to document global warming. Hundreds of scientific articles document the movement of wild species in response to climate change. But the disturbing fact is that many aren't moving fast enough, and can't. Others simply have no corridors of escape. All are potential climate change road kill.

Agricultural crops face a similar dilemma. As with pandas and many other wild species, the maize and sorghum varieties grown by subsistence farmers in Africa cannot and will not easily relocate. And staying where they are is hardly an adaptive strategy that inspires confidence. Even if such crop varieties were to survive, what would become of the farmers hit with devastating drops in production due to climate change?

Seed banks with their vast collections of crop diversity constitute a cultural corridor, a bridge through time that will help enable crops to adapt to climate change. The biodiversity that seed banks protect may not inspire our empathy as easily as pandas, but its loss would be catastrophic for many, many species.

Let's Party

The International Year of Biodiversity is now well underway. Charismatic biodiversity will be celebrated. Less charismatic biodiversity will be eaten.

Beginnings are often messy. Perhaps it matters little whether the international community chooses to celebrate crop diversity, but it profoundly matters that the international community takes action to conserve it.

In October, in Japan, the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will convene for the tenth time. That occasion should commence not with gloom and doom and revelations of more extinctions. It should begin instead with a stunning announcement that steps have been taken to ensure the survival of the biodiversity upon which we most directly depend. Technically and financially such an announcement is feasible now. This year. For any crop. For all crops.

Imagine such a beginning.

Better yet, for a year that started so poorly for biodiversity, imagine such an end.