Just 12 crops provide 80 per cent of nutritional energy

The scarcity of plant varieties as a result of the extinction of many wild species has led to a very vulnerable world agriculture

HAVANA (10 December 2004) -- IT IS BELIEVED that agriculture began 10,000 years ago. At that time, the planet possessed around 10,000 different edible species of vegetables.

During one and a half million years of evolution, the human race devoted its time to hunting animals and gathering roots, seeds, fruit, insects, fish and eggs.

Archeological findings indicate that growing crops for food was an activity that began in an independent manner in at least four regions of the world: Mexico in Central America, the central Andes in South America, South East Asia and North Asia.

The ancient crops of Latin America were corn, beans, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes and yucca.

In the original locations of the plants, agriculturists began to sow seeds under different environmental conditions. It was in this way that certain species suffered a process of natural hybridization with other wild plants.

It is thought that 1,500 years before our era, the majority of crops that are known today were already being exploited. Using a radiocarbon technique capable of measuring the age of seeds, researchers have been able to estimate dates and places where crops were cultivated for the first time.

The map that accompanies this article was given to me during a seminar for journalists specializing in agricultural issues, organized by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the Inter Press Service agency in 1990 in San Josť, Costa Rica.

It was there that I heard of phytogenetic recourses and their importance in terms of human nutrition thanks to contributions from scientists from diverse parts of the world.

The Romans, Greeks and Asians were unaware of the importance of the genetic diversity of vegetables and how to conserve them, according to British Professor J.G.Hawkes from Birmingham University.

The British academic confirmed that it was Russian scientist Vivilov who discovered the enormous range of cultivated plants during the early part of the 19th century.

Vavilov traveled almost the whole world over collecting plants. It was he who founded the scientific discipline devoted to the study of phytogenetic resources (wild genes). The Russian's research is a source of reference for scientists throughout the world.

It was not until 1950-60 that specialists began to be concerned, at international level, over the disappearance of diversity amongst plants exploited for agriculture.

From that decade onwards, it has been acknowledged that genetic erosion is occurring throughout the planet.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the majority of the earth's inhabitants consume just 150 different crop varieties and only 12 species provide 80 per cent of human beings' nutritional energy.

Of this energy, 60 per cent comes exclusively from wheat, rice, corn and potatoes, according to information from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

All food crops from Northern America originally come from other regions of the world.

More than half the agricultural produce of two thirds of the developing countries are indigenous to other regions, according to a report on the world's phytogenetic resources produced by the FAO.

It has also been confirmed that 87 per cent of vegetable species used in Sub-Saharan Africa come from other parts of the world.

Rescuing native plants

I recently read on the Internet that indigenous campesinos in the Andes are conserving species of wild potatoes. Like them, other communities are concerned at the loss of native plants.

Agriculturists and scientists are using wild or native plants as the raw material for the production of new varieties. These resources constitute a deposit for genetic diversity that assists scientists in their search to find protective characteristics from environmental change and devastating phenomena such as pests and diseases.

According to FAO, although many countries are conserving gene banks, they require access to resources from other nations in order to improve their varieties or to find resistance to disease. The current problem is how to obtain them and how to carry out this exchange which has often seen the plunder of the poorest regions of the world where nature was once abundant.

*RAISA PAGES Granma International staff writer

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