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Science and Health:
Seeds of Conflict
More on This Story:
Gene Banks

At the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this summer a new initiative to save the world's genetic heritage was announced with much fanfare. It's called The Global Conservation Trust, and is overseen by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Just this week the new organization put out a desperate appeal for $260 million dollars to help maintain these repositories of seed. Preserving native and locally adapted crop species provides a crucial hedge against drought, pests, floods, crop failures and other disasters.

But even when a seed is held in a bank that doesn't mean its genetic code is preserved for posterity. The problem is in regeneration. Many seeds need to be periodically replanted and regenerated for the species to remain viable.

Many of the world's 1470 gene banks are facing financial hardship, and the resources of others are in great danger. Lack of funding, wars, natural disasters, and disruptions in crucial maintenance systems like water and electricity all threaten these collections. Already gene banks in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Romania and Afghanistan have been lost.

Recent studies by the Imperial College of Agriculture and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organizations point out the perilous state of the world's genetic diversity:

  • 1470 gene banks worldwide maintain 5,4 million plant samples.
  • Of those 5.4 million species, over 2 million are held by only one bank.
  • Over time, some 10,000 species have been used by humans for food and agriculture.
  • Today only 120 species provide more than 90 percent of the plant material consumed by people worldwide.
  • One in twelve of the world's 250,000 species of flowering plants will disappear by 2025.
  • Since 1900 we have lost 75% of our crop varieties.
For more on gene banks see: CIMMYT Worldwide; International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

What is especially important to realize is that only a small percentage of species have yet to be described at all. We have tended to focus on those closest to ourselves — mammals and birds are well documented, but we know relatively little about fungi, bacteria and other small living entities. An astonishing fact when you consider that penicillin is a simple mold. Scientists don't know the extent of the loss when a species is gone. They do know, however, that it is permanent.

Find out where all the flowers, animals and even crustaceans have gone.


On average, about three new species of birds are found each year, and as recently as 1990, a new species of monkey was discovered. Other vertebrate groups are still far from being completely described: an estimated 40 percent of freshwater fishes in South America have not yet been classified. ...

Ecosystems and Diversity:

Ecosystem degradation is an immense problem. Losing one element can lead to the death of many species and whole chains of life. EARTH ON EDGE documented the effect that an invasive species, in this case trees, had on a delicate haven for genetic diversity in South Africa.

Forests: Tropical forests are the most species-rich ecosystems in the world. The world's forested area declined by about 2.4 percent in the 1990s, a loss of about 90,000 km squared per year.

Desertification: This growing phenomenon affects almost a quarter of the total land area of the world, and almost 70 percent of the world's drylands face further degradation. Often caused by overgrazing and overuse of marginal land, and closely linked to rural poverty and hunger, desertification threatens the livelihoods of over 1 billion people in 100 countries.

Fisheries: World waters provide direct and indirect livelihoods for some 400 million people. More than a quarter of the world's fisheries are over-utilized and half are exploited at full capacity. Overall, 75 percent of the world's fisheries require immediate steps to freeze or reduce fishing to ensure a future supply of fish.

Coral Reefs: Almost a quarter of the world's coral reefs have been completely destroyed, and another 20 to 30 percent are threatened with destruction within the next 10 years. Coral reefs are a crucial element in the food chain of the oceans.

Genetic Diversity Stats

% of world covered by forest:  30%
Net total loss of forest 1990 - 2000:  94 million hectares
% of the worlds fisheries requiring reduction or freezing of fishing:  75%
% of world's coastal ecosystems endangered by human activity:  Over 50%
% of world's land lost to production by human activity:  25%
# of wheat varieties used in China in 1949:
# of wheat varieties used in China in 1970:
% of corn varieties lost in Mexico since 1930:  80%
% loss of apple, cabbage, corn, tomato, pea varieties grown in the United States since 1804:  85 - 90%
United Nations Environment Program; The Convention on Biodiversity; Food and Agriculture Organization: World Wildlife Fund

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