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Just a Few Species Make Up Most of Earth’s Food Supply. And That’s a Problem

The looming threat of extinction from climate change makes the lack of diversity in the world’s food supplies a dangerous prospect

Humans overwhelmingly rely on only a few crops like wheat, making our food supplies vulnerable to climate change (Larisa Koshkina / PDP)
smithsonian.com

Grocery stores may seem like a cornucopia, offering every imaginable fruit, veggie, cereal and meat. But a new report suggests that our food comes from just a few crops and types of livestock. And that could spell trouble if climate change drives any of these species to extinction.

"While wild elephants and rhinos thoroughly deserve our support, we should also be raising the alarm for our disappearing agrobiodiversity," Ann Tutwiler, director general of Biodiversity International, the organization who published the report, writes for the Guardian. "After all, if there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains the 7 billion people on our planet."

The organization aggregated data from dozens of previous studies and reports on agricultural diversity from around the world. The results suggest that three-quarters of Earth's food supply draws on just 12 crops and five livestock species.

"Overreliance on too few varieties and species is leaving the food system unnecessarily exposed to shocks and stresses, as well as neglecting a high-impact solution to major health, environmental and food security challenges," the organization says in a statement. For example, the reliance of Irish farmers on a single species of potato for nearly all of their food in the 19th century allowed the Irish potato famine to devastate the country, reports Damian Carrington for the Guardian.

The effects can already be seen in some places, Tutwiler writes, such as in Tanzania, where yields of coffee have been cut in half since 1960 by droughts and temperature changes. Cacao and tea crops that power the economies of many developing nations are on the verge being decimated by a warming Earth.

"These crops are the tip of the iceberg," Tutwiler writes, noting that 940 species cultivated by humans are under threat. 

Diversification of our food could also have other benefits. By growing a greater number of crops, farms could incorporate practices such as crop rotation that helps maintain higher levels of soil nutrients and reduce the need for added fertilizers, reports Stuart Braun for Deutsche Welle. Also, incorporating more native crops could produce larger yields, thus helping to alleviate food insecurity, writes Carrington. 

One of the biggest offenders of monoculture is the growth of cereals and soy to feed the ever-growing livestock industry. This large-scale production of meat takes a heavy toll on the environment, according to Braun, driving emissions release and climate change. By reducing reliance on meat, societies could both reduce emissions and support diversification of food sources.

The new report seeks to raise awareness of the importance of such diversification. "Agrobiodiversity is a precious resource that we are losing, and yet it can also help solve or mitigate many challenges the world is facing," Tutwiler writes. "It has a critical yet overlooked role in helping us improve global nutrition, reduce our impact on the environment and adapt to climate change."

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