Humans now depend on 15 plants and animals for some 90% of total calories (FAO. Staple foods, what do people eat). There has never been a time in human evolution with such a narrow range of reliance (see also Goal 2, Demand-supply Coordination, Substtitution, Sustainable Diet). To compound the problem, within those 15 plants and animals, economic forces have dramatically reduced the plant varieties and animal breeds deemed commercially important. Biodiversity decline is also affecting populations of insects, soil fauna and micro-organisms, many of them very significant for human quality of life. Native pollinators are perhaps the most pressing example for the food supply.
The Irish Potato Famine, 1970s US corn leaf blight and Indonesia rice brown planthopper disease, the regular demise of dominant banana varieties, coffee rust, citrus greening disease and the extinction of many animal breeds are all expressions of this problem. Although there remains some uncertainty in the literature, the narrowing of the genetic base, in combination with other factors, is thought to increase the risk of pest pressures, particularly diseases (ie., genetic uniformity > disease vulnerability). More diverse populations are thought to dilute the opportunities for widespread pest problems (cf. studies cited by King and Lively, 2012; Anacieto et al., 2019; also Pagán et al., 2012; ). The loss of varieties and breeds limits the base of material for farmers and breeders to draw on for resilient crop and animal systems.
The forces of agricultural capitalism are deeply complicit in the problems. The loss of seed and land as community "property" has had significant negative impacts. The dispossession of indigenous peoples from the land on which they protected biodiversity for millenia, and the denial of their fundamental roles in developing and protecting many of today's essential food crops (Morrison, 2020), is egregious. The theft of genetic material from indigenous peoples and peasants of the Global South has created wealth, largely uncompensated, in the industrial north (see Mooney, 1983; Shiva, 1997). The commodification of seed and state facilitation of mergers and acquisitions in the seed and agri-chemical industries has significantly narrowed ownership of these critical resources (see Goal 3, Corporate Concentration). Controlling who owns and accesses seed and animal genetics is a central part of profit-making Genetic engineering is having a negative impact on bacteria and other micro-organisms.
A perverse cycle in this process is that commercial pressures reduce the planting of locally adapted seeds and raising of locally adapted animals as commercial interests push forward more universal lines of genetic material which then have to be re-adapted to local conditions, usually with less success. The universal lines are usually more expensive, particularly hybrids and GE lines, for local producers and hold the promise of higher production as long as conditions are very favourable. This typically means good weather and the use of agri-chemical inputs since most breeding programs select traits that do well in a high management / fertilizer / pesticide use environment. Hyrbrid corn (Kloppenburg, 1990) and the new hybrid wheat (Pratt, 2021) are classic examples. Because of this, many sustainable producers use older varieties of plants and older breeds of animals that require less intensive management.
Governments have tried to compensate for these negative forces with genetic resource conservation programs, always inadequate relative to the forces of high productivity and privatization. Although conservation processes have improved the last few decades, because commercial breeders focus so heavily on a narrow range of traits, with few of them useful to an ecological approach to production, it is not obvious current approaches are sufficiently viable solutions.
Financing the transition
Our understanding of financing the transition is most apparent from the story of plant genetic resources, to some extent animals, and because of knowledge and implementation gaps, we know the least about the transition for farmed fish, insects and micro-organisms. We know from earlier crop experiences that when loss of genetic diversity results in significant disease problems, the economic and social costs are enormous. As discussed in many other areas, the costs of lost income and community dislocation are largely borne by individuals and individual firms, but the costs of prevention are absorbed primarily by the public sector and NGOs, in part because markets do not value prevention. Arguably, if markets valued prevention, the genetic base would never have been allowed to erode. The costs include research on new varieties and breeds, farmers having to transition to new seeds, breeds and production regimes, yield declines and significant income losses, and community and cultural disruption as farmers abandon areas affected by the disease. Financing the transition, then is essentially about making up front investments to avoid costs down the road.
Although there are a limited number of pertinent studies on the economics of genetic resources use and conservation, they suggest that the costs of conservation are relatively modest, with the benefits significantly outweighing the costs. New costs would most likely be associated with support for in-situ conservation and expansion of gene banks. When examining the benefits of high performance breeds and cultivars, the benefits are usually overestimated because the public contributions to high performance (research, extension, subsidies), and the negative impacts of such systems, are typically under accounted for (Narloch et al., 2011). The costs of conservation are also mitigated when there are consumption (and revenue) opportunities associated with heritage breeds and varieties.
.... farmer willingness to participate in genetic resources conservation activities for the public good may be more closely related to the consumption values of the genetic resources in question than to their production opportunity costs (which generally do not take into account the existence of farmers’ many non-market preferences and values). Hence, conservation costs may be overestimated if based only on conventional economic opportunity cost estimates. (FAO, 2015:540)
For farmers, financing the transition is linked to sustainable transition. Being able to sell products of heritage varieties and breeds helps. If bundled with sustainable protocols, then some costs are covered as part of that authentication system (see Goal 5, Sustainable food). On the agronomic side, mixing different cultivars in a field contributes to modest yield increases and yield stability, especially in the face of environmental pressures such as moisture and pest stress (Reiss and Drinkwater, 2018). This is a concrete example of how cultivar diversity can pay off. Key of course is having a diverse array of cultivars to use. Similarly with animals, a diverse set of breeds adapted to low input environments create opportunities for significant input cost reductions. For example, cattle that do well outdoors on grass all year round and therefore don't require barns and grain feed (eg. Highland) create options that are not necessarily available with the dominant production breeds. Multispecies grazing is also a viable low input option on many mixed operations but requires compatible breeds of different animals.
At the landscape level, however, biodiversity becomes a form of public good, especially because the market is also unable to value at the landscape level (see also Goal 2, Landscape level coordination). There are private benefits, but mixed with public ones, and requiring implementation beyond the individual farm, public involvement is required. Many of the proposals related to public intervention require reallocation within existing funding envelopes. This typically means at least a temporary increase in overall budget during the shift from one approach to another. As the new approach takes hold, the budget for the old approach can be reduced, potentially resulting in no net increase.
Private breeding and genetics companies will have to pivot their operations to remain profitable, but most of them are the best placed to do so of all the actors in the system, and given transition time lines should be able to adapt to the new approaches.