The future for grasses


The future for grasses

The future of grasses in the world is being tackled on two very different fronts:

  • Firstly the preservation in seed vaults of as many different crop varieties as possible.
  • Secondly, given the steady rise in world population (estimated 8 billion by 2024), by the genetic engineering of seeds so as to grow larger and more disease-resistant crops.

According to BBC World service programme “Food”, six companies manage two-thirds of the world’s feed and if planned mergers go ahead, just three companies will own two-thirds of the world’s feed – what does this say for the future of man’s staple diet?

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GM foods (Genetically Modified foods)

Different crops © A Willstrop

As Brian Capon in his book Botany for Gardeners explains: “Inheritance, in both plants and animals, is determined by the genetic code embodied in their DNA .... The genomes of many plants are also being mapped, giving scientists a tool for directly transferring DNA to make some plants more nutritious, drought tolerant, or disease resistant.”

This activity has caused some not insignificant concerns among many about the risk to mankind of eating food made from plants that we have virtually no data for and for which any harmful side-effects, if any, are as yet still to be discovered.

Any effects may well take many, many years to discover – by which time it will probably be too late to turn back.

As Capon concludes, the other side of the argument is: “In places where one plant such as rice is the principal staple food, a genetically engineered variety that is superior in nutrition and productivity and more affordable than other varieties may be vital to the future of food production of those people.”

The jury is still out on which argument is the weightier!

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Food-crop gene banks

Where is Svalbard? © Svalbard Global Seed Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (also called the Doomsday Seed Vault) buried deep in the side of a frozen mountain on the Island of Svalbard situated within the Arctic Circle, aims to preserve as many different varieties of crop species as possible and in this way help protect the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), an international organization working to ensure conservation and availability of crop diversity around the world, manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Enjoy a virtual visit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault here.

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References: Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption During the Middle Stone Age, Julio Mercader, Science magazine (Science 18 Dec 2009: Vol. 326, Issue 5960 DOI: 10.1126/science.1173966); The cabaret of plants – Botany and the imagination, Richard Mabey, Profile books; Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT); FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Division of Technology, Industry and Economics; Brian Capon, Botany for gardeners, Third edition, Timber Press; Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.