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The Future of Agrodiversity Can Be Bright

By Benson Hill

May 22, 2019


If you’re planning on attending any observations May 22 for International Day for Biological Diversity, you’d have a right to assume the dress code is black.

“About One Million Species Face Risk of Extinction, UN Report Says,” proclaimed a headline May 7 in The Wall Street Journal. “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace,The New York Times echoed.

Behind these reports, as many readers know, stands a new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an independent body that convened 150 scientists from all over the world for the most comprehensive report ever on global biodiversity.

The report represented an enormous service to humanity, in my view, because it presented the most comprehensive report yet on what is literally a life and death issue for our planet and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise. But here is what the report also said, and the reason I, for one, will not be wearing black on May 22:

“Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.”

In other words, there is hope not only for halting the downward spiral we’re now in, but for reversing it. And that is where I choose to place my focus.

The basis for my hope, you should understand, is unrelated to any disposition or aspect of my nature. It has everything, however, to do with Nature – specifically, with the genetic richness of our natural world, and with the rapidly growing opportunity we have to tap it.

Let’s focus here on the industry I know best – agriculture – and start with a more detailed description of the problem.

A Vicious Circle
As the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has noted, there are about 30,000 edible plant species on earth. Just 15, however, account for 90 percent of the calories consumed, and just three – rice, maize, and wheat – provide nearly 60 percent of all the plant calories that human beings consume.

That’s part of the agrodiversity crisis – an excessive reliance on only a few crops, putting us in the precarious situation of having far too many eggs in far too few baskets. But it goes beyond that. Even among the crops we do consume, we’ve been losing diversity – suffering “genetic erosion.” Since the 1900s, FAO says, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.

Meanwhile, agriculture is responsible for about 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. That means agriculture itself bears sizable responsibility for the climate change that the IPBES noted is now compounding the biodiversity crisis – which, in turn, is heightening the stresses on agriculture.

What we have here is a profoundly vicious circle.

New Tools Offer Hope
But this is why I’m hopeful: We’re rapidly learning how to disrupt this circle. We’re learning how to tap the genetic richness all around us and bring about the transformative change the IPBES said we needed.

Consider: Corn has 12,000 more genes than humans. Wheat has several times more than corn.  (One theory for why these plants have us genetically outnumbered? Survival is a lot more complicated when you can’t vacate the premises despite threats from predators or environmental deterioration.)

In any case, what this means is that these – and many other crops – have immense genetic richness, offering immense potential for improvement all built into their genomes.  And increasingly, with technologies like gene editing and advanced predictive breeding, we can explore and tap this richness in ways that work to our own and Nature’s advantage.

The new tools constitute a breakthrough because they enable us to leap the time and resource barriers that until recently have limited genomic improvement to just a handful of the largest-acre crops. With their help, we can breed many more crops for higher yields – enabling us to make more efficient use of precious, finite natural resources like water and land. We can produce crops with functional health properties and higher nutrition density. We can produce crops that grow in the kinds of marginal, drought-stressed conditions that are expected to become more prevalent with changing climate. We can grow crops that serve in rotations to improve soil health. We can even tailor these modifications more to specific geographies and locations.

These improvements will enhance sustainability as well as create a more robust set of food varieties in the market. And they will bring these benefits about by increasing agrodiversity instead of shrinking it.

From small seed firms to large consumer packaged goods companies, we’re proud to partner with organizations working to leverage the natural genetic diversity within plants to create more healthy and sustainable food choices. Here, for lack of space, I’ll highlight just two.  

Two Prominent Examples
The African Orphan Crop Consortium, a collaboration of non-profits, private companies, research institutions, and other organizations, is one. The AOCC is working on cassava and 100 other crops that don’t make investment sense for the largest seed companies (hence “orphan”), but which are nutritionally and financially important to 250 million smallholder farmers. Through the use of today’s new advanced breeding methods, the AOCC is seeking to improve the nutritional content of these 101 crops as well as their productivity and sustainability, so they can play an even more constructive role in African life. Some 150 African plant breeders are being trained in and provided access to Benson Hill’s Crop OS™ crop design platform to facilitate their work.

Similarly, we’re proud to partner with Embrapa, a Brazilian-government owned research, development and innovation corporation revered as one of the largest plant biodiversity research institutions in the world. Brazil represents 20% of the natural diversity on the planet. Embrapa has developed the largest seed gene bank in Brazil and works to improve the productivity, nutrition and sustainability of more than 20 crop species. Through our partnership, Embrapa uses Benson Hill’s predictive breeding platform and genome editing nucleases to leverage the natural genetic diversity of crops and accelerate their improvement.

By using gene editing and predictive breeding capabilities, these organizations and many others are showing how agriculture can help in the way the writers of the UN report urged. It can help Nature “be conserved, restored and used sustainably.”

So yes, we have a biodiversity crisis. But by tapping the natural genetic diversity all around us, agriculture can begin to alter the trajectory. And I, for one, am hoping that on a not-too-distant future International Day for Biological Diversity, the somber mood felt so widely today will have lifted – replaced by something much, much brighter.

Matt


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