March 28, 2016
WHAT WON’T WE EAT 50 YEARS FROM NOW?
In the course of the last ten thousand years, the human diet has changed dramatically. Slowly, but surely, we have changed from the famous hunter-gatherers into farmers. Humanity has taken matters into their own hands by organizing nature. Now, a few thousand years later, agriculture is still very important for humans, with supermarkets offering hundreds of fresh fruit and vegetable types from all over the world. The choice of new species only seems to be increasing, but is it also possible to imagine that the future would see a decline in the diversity of our diet?
The discovery of agriculture is certainly one of the developments that rank high on the list of important changes that made humans into what we are today. The crops that were bred at the beginning of the agricultural times are nothing like the crops that we now accept as normal. The thick ears of corn that are familiar to us now once appeared more like the seeds of wild grasses along the road. Most of these age-old species are still present but are now no longer grown due to the availability of more efficient crops.
Due to humanity’s success and the immense population growth, there has always been a high demand for food. Despite that we encounter limits of what is possible; fisherman is likely the most familiar with this. Several important species of fish such as tuna and swordfish, but also many others, are endangered because of over-fishing, but that has not lessened the demand for fish. If no successful method is invented to breed these fish, the fish will be lost to the success of humans.
The extinction of species is a natural process of evolution. Species that are not strong enough to survive in a particular environment will slowly become extinct. The presence of other competing species can have a strong causal effect on that process. Since the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago, man has increasingly focused on monocultures. These large monocultures limit the natural cross-pollination of many plant species simply by reducing the available habitat.
Another major problem that has only recently been acknowledged is contamination with genes from genetically modified plants. A familiar example is corn. In many places around the world, corn is grown and very often this is a genetically modified variant. The genes of these man-modified plants are now also found in wild corn plants. It is quite possible that in the future only the genetically modified version will be available because the other will have simply disappeared. This is a serious problem. Unfortunately, it will probably only be recognized and appreciated by the majority for its impact when it is too late.
There is a trend towards increasing genetic manipulation of crops. Through accidental pollination, wild variants are being lost. It is, therefore, possible that the most frequently eaten crops ‘disappear’. The most important, and most frequently cultivated crops, strangely enough, face the most risk of becoming extinct. This change will be hard to spot, especially for consumers who just shop for fruits and vegetables in the stores. Right now, science‘s position is that genetic engineering won’t do much harm, but this perspective can easily change in the future. Asbestos was also initially also seen as harmless.
Fortunately, there are projects focused on saving such variants and species for the future to explain. For example, there are different seed banks which store seeds under the optimal conditions so that they can be preserved for as long as possible. Since 2008 the “Svalbard Global Seed Vault” has operated on the island of Svalbard. This underground building is in the permafrost, and will in the case of power failure, warm up very gradually. This project is designed like a ‘Noah’s Ark’ for plant species and is, therefore, being filled at breakneck speed. Currently, it contains more than 750,000 different samples.
Still, it is possible that different food sources will be depleted and disappear. Though the trend still appears to be going in the direction of a wider range of foods, there is always a possibility that a certain type of plant will disappear. It is up to the consumer to ensure that all products have a future. In some cases, a greater demand for products will be important for the survival of the species, like non-genetically modified corn. In other cases, such as endangered species of large fish, a lower consumption is recommendable. In both cases, there certainly is no harm for consumers to understand where the product comes from and what it takes to create and sustain it.