Why We Should Grow Food for Future Generations: Esther Meduna (Transcript)

Here is the full text of Esther Meduna’s talk titled “Why We Should Grow Food for Future Generations” at TEDxBasel conference.

The world has experienced a 75% decrease in horticultural diversity in the past 150 years. In this talk, Esther explores the causes of this decline, the risk this poses and what the average person can do to help reverse the process.

Esther Meduna – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

If we still lived as hunters and gatherers on wild plums and animals alone, then there would be only about 25 million people on earth today.

Now the population is over 7 billion, which is due to a change in our way of life from over 10,000 years ago.

Some of your and my ancestors saw the potential in certain wild plants and animals and started domesticating them. This happened through continuous cultivation and selection of those plants with a special capacity — only a small part of wild plants and animals can be domesticated at all.

Let’s have a look at this plant, for example. Isn’t it amazing that out of this wild cabbage, kale, cauliflower and all the other cabbage varieties were developed?

This development into a culture plant did, of course, not happen overnight but took thousands of years, and it took several hundreds of generations of humans. That’s why they are a real cultural heritage, just like the Eiffel Tower or a Van Gogh painting.

So, maybe the next time you bite into a cauliflower, be aware that you’re eating a kind of Mona Lisa. Through domestication process, a huge diversity arose.

For almost every part of the world, species and varieties that fit the special conditions were found. In Switzerland, for example, there were distinct varieties in almost every village, like the Küttiger carrot or the Uster apple.

I like to watch the reactions of people at exhibitions of traditional varieties. It is clearly split by age. Older the people say, ‘Oh, I remember this variety from my grandmother’s garden.’

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And younger people, they are just amazed and say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many different ones’, and then they take out their phone and take a picture.

But apart from being a cultural heritage or simply being beautiful, do we really need this much diversity? Would not one single variety of each crop be enough?

What happens if a population depends too much on a single variety was highlighted in Ireland in the mid-19th century. The Irish were mostly cultivating a potato variety called the Lumper. Potatoes of the same variety are clones and thus genetically identical.

So when a new disease arrived with the potato blight, it had a very easy game, and it destroyed the crops in consecutive years. The sad consequence was that about a million people died, and one and a half million Irish had to emigrate.

We can see from this that nature does not agree with monocultures, as they can be easily wiped out by a single disease. The natives in South America, for example, do not grow only one single potato variety but many, many different ones.

Like this, they always have a yield, as the varieties differ in their reaction to pests and drier or wetter years. A more current example to show that monocultures are only short living is the banana. It may well be that in a few years, you will not be able to eat one anymore.

The trade relies to 95% on a single variety which is grown on large plantations. These are now threatened by the Panama disease. There is no other variety to replace it at the moment.

And to make my point for diversity very clear, let’s look at it from a completely different angle. If you were so lucky to be a millionaire, you would not put all your money on the same stock, but you would diversify because the risk of losing everything is too big.

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But, in agriculture, instead of diversifying and minimizing the risk, what we are doing is the exact opposite. And this funnel represents the concentration which is taking place at every level.

Firstly, it represents the people working in agriculture. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was 60% of the population. Now, it is down to 3%. And it stands for the seed companies.

In 1970, there were 7,000 companies, and none had a market share of over 0.5%. Now, the top five hold 60% of the market. And it stands for the huge loss in diversity.

In the last 150 years, we lost 75% of all varieties ever selected by humans. They have gone forever. One reason for this huge loss is the industrialization of every culture and with it the appearance of modern hybrid seeds.

For farmers and gardeners, hybrid seeds are a dead end because they do not stay true to type when you take the seeds. You have to buy them every year, and thus, they are an extremely good business model, as you have to rely on the companies.

Traditional varieties, on the other hand, can be regrown by everybody who wants to, year after year, by saving your own seeds. With traditional varieties, many ways are possible, and this is what makes them powerful. They can be the base for a more sustainable agricultural future.

We do not know what challenges lie ahead and what new traits will be necessary, but the more diversity we can safeguard now, the better the chances are that we will have the suitable varieties at hand for the future. And that is why I would like this funnel to be reversed again.

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