Biologists now accept that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event, as humans alter and change the environment at such as pace that wildlife cannot keep up. While the big ticket species like tigers and polar bears garner much of the attention as their numbers dwindle, worryingly little is reported about the plants and animals that are likely to have a major impact on our food supply.
According to a new report, we are at risk of overlooking the impact that these extinctions will have on the crops we grow, something which sustains every single one of the 7 billion people on Earth. And if you think that this is something to worry about at some point in the future, well, already a shocking 940 cultivated species are already under threat of reduced productivity and extinction.
From coffee production that has halved in Tanzania since the 1960s, to the warnings that cacao trees will not be able to survive in Ghana – where 70 percent of our chocolate originates – if global temperatures surpass 2°C in warming, to the fact that 22 percent of all wild potato species are slowly disappearing, there is a crisis rapidly brewing. And even though this is of a direct consequence to us and our own survival, there seems agonizingly little concern.
“Agrobiodiversity – the edible plant and animal species that feed each and every one of us – holds the key to future food security,” explained Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, who published the new report. “But we are failing to protect it, and tap into its potential to transform our food system for the better.”
One of the most troubling aspects of the current agricultural business is the heavy reliance on just a handful of species. It is thought that out of around 7,000 species of plants that can be used as food, just thirty are used to feed the world, and out of these, only three species – wheat, rice, and maize – account for roughly 50 percent of all plant calories consumed globally.
This concentrated dependency on just a few crops delivers a serious risk to our food supply, particularly as the sixth mass extinction of wildlife sets in. All it would take is for one disease to emerge that could wipe out vast swathes of crops across massive regions, threatening the survival of millions in the process, such as was seen during the potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840s.
The authors of the report recommend that we start to diversify, and bring a far more varied number of crops and plants into our diets and the agricultural industry in order to preserve and protect our future food supply.