Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The danger in monoculture spuds

Solanum tuberosum 001
Solanum tuberosum (potato)
Potatoes were first cultivated almost 10,000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes. The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the 15th century, and by 1845, 1/3 of the fields in Ireland were planted with a single strain of potatoes. That same year the crops were devastated by potato blight, a disease caused by a pathogenic fungus. By 1855, Ireland's population shrunk by 25% with 2,000,000 people dying of hunger or emigrating.

This disaster highlighted the danger of using only a very small number of different crop varieties (monoculture). Blight never devastated South America where hundreds of potato varieties are grown, with each variety being both resistant to (and sensitive to) different strains of pathogens.

Reliance on single strains of crops is a danger in modern times also. Educated uses of genes from wild strains is essential for ensuring food security. For example, research funded by the Gates Foundation is looking to utilize genes from wild wheat to combat rust, a fungal disease that's devastating cultivated wheat crops in Africa.

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