The most frightening aspect of the current loss of species is the unbelievable speed of decline. Though species have come and gone since the day of creation, what is happening right now is not due to a natural disaster, but to human misconduct. It is because of our mismanagement of habitats and resources that plants and animals are finding it impossible to survive. Urban sprawl, desertification, global warming, pollution, over exploitation all conspire to destroy habitat and/or food supplies of one species after another.
The Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon declared 2010 as the 'International Year of Biodiversity', no doubt hoping to draw attention to the fact that we are losing species at an alarming rate. Although we do not really know how many species actually exist on the planet at any one time, it is estimated that we are losing about 15 of them per day. (That is 5475 per YEAR!)
To be sure, in the course of its existence earth has generated and lost more species than are currently inhabiting the planet. No doubt, in time it will regenerate and create conditions appropriate for new species to evolve. However, I dare say, human beings will not be part of that version of life on earth. We seem to forget that we are at the top of the food chain, which means that ultimately, we depend on all other species which, in this hierarchical view of the world, sit below us, - even those we do not utilize for food or anything else. In the web of life, each specie is connected with every other. By destroying it we destroy our own basis of existence.
But for some reason there seems to be a prevalent attitude of either 'devil may care', or, an irrational belief in science and technology that 'they will fix it. Science is the new religion and scientists are the saints that are supposed to work miracles. And sure enough, they always come up with new solutions that are supposed to solve our problems. Unfortunately, more often than not the solutions create more problems than they solve.
Consider seeds, for example. Seeds are the basis of all life. Before the advent of agriculture humans gathered and hunted for their daily needs. Their diet typically comprised of some 250 species, which were available to them, though not all at the same time, of course. Once we started to settle we focused our attention on certain particular plants to grow in our fields and gardens. Over hundreds of generations we developed countless varieties of our favorite species, which me managed to adapt to specific locations and micro-climates. We actually helped to increase biodiversity through a direct and personal interaction with nature. This process can be considered at the very heart of ethnobotany, since many such special crops are also the foundation of cultural identity and play a significant part in ceremony and ritual. Literally thousands of species evolved at the hands of dedicated farmers and gardeners throughout the world.
Today this rich treasure, our heritage, is being stolen and eroded right in front of our eyes. Seed companies are taking an ever increasing hold on the keys of life, controlling what is grown and thus, what we get to eat. Of our once great choice among dozens of varieties of potatoes, tomatoes and apples only a few have survived the forces of market selection - sorted according to their shelf-life, perfect shape and uniform color rather than their taste or nutritional value. Furthermore, the industrialization of agriculture sells us the lie of choice. Afterall, we now have access to a great variety and fresh produce from around the world. But how fresh or wholesome is a tomato that is grown in a greenhouse miles away, picked unripe, but sprayed with special hormones that allow it to develop its color even in the absence of sunlight? It may look like a real tomato once it arrives on your local supermarket shelf but in reality it is just something that vaguely resembles the real thing, a tomato grown on a farm down the road from where you live, without the aid of agro-chemicals and picked the day before it went to the market.
Meanwhile, seeds that have been developed by our ancestors are tossed out and lost forever as commercial seed companies are trying to push us towards buying their F1 seeds with their promise of uniform vegetables and high yields. But the seeds of those plants do not breed true, meaninh, next year you'll have to buy new seeds to get the same results.
In industrial food production the situation is even worse as Monsanto and Co is moving in to monopolize food production worldwide. Their seed (often obtained by bio-piracy) are patented and require a whole array of chemicals to be grown successfully. Keeping the seeds for next year's sowing becomes a criminal offence unless you pay the royalties. Worse still are their terminator seeds, which will actually commit suicide and are unable to produce a new generation. This is equal to sterilizing babies at birth and only allowing new generations to be manufactured in the test-tube in accordance with a blueprint of desired traits. This road of monopolized seed production is a road to total environmental disaster waiting to happen. Nature requires diversity in order to thrive. Genetic variety is fundamental to the continuation of life on earth - not just human survival, but life, as we know it.
We do not know what changes are ahead of us that our children and children's children will have to cope with and adapt to. But by carelessly diminishing the keys of life as we are doing right now is equivalent of stealing their future, destroying it before it even had a chance to grow and develop. For without that genetic variety their options for developing plants and crops that will be able to cope with our rapidly changing environment are seriously curtailed.
What is even worse about this situation is the fact that ignorant politicians and bureaucrats who don't have the smallest clue about biology and the facts of life are allowed to pass legislation on such issues and actually pass laws and rules to limit the amount and types of seeds that are allowed to be commercially traded. Every commercial seed must be listed, which requires rather a lot of money and paperwork. The license has to be renewed regularly if one wants a seed to remain on that list. If there is no demand for it seed companies do not bother listing it and so, the seed will simply vanish, soon to join another list: the list of endangered or extinct species. Due to the costs involved, only the biggest seed companies can afford to keep seeds listed. For obscure seeds, the only chance of survival lies in grassroots seed swapping networks.
While signing accords and treaties to 'save our biodiversity' and spending millions of dollars on such high profile campaigns, politicians and bureaucrats actually kill our biological heritage with a stroke of a pen. They are the real culprits threatening our biodiversity - in collaboration with the seed companies. Food is the most basic human need and, according to the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights, one of our fundamental rights as human beings. No one on this planet should be allowed to hold a patent to monopolize seeds, or control what we should and should not eat.
So, where does that leave us, as consumers? How can we reverse the tide and reclaim our heritage, the keys of life?
Actually, there is quite a lot we can do.
Taking responsibility is the ultimate path to empowerment. As long as we regard an issue as too big for our little selves, we will be victims. We will be at someone else's mercy - if they find solutions, good, if not, we will suffer the consequences. But instead of being a victim of whatever problem we are facing, we can choose to be part of the solution - by taking it personally and engaging with it. This is OUR planet, and it is the only one we have. If we do not take care of it, who will?
Join the seed saver revolution:
Find out what species used to be cultivated in your area and see if you can trace seeds through heirloom seed swapping networks. Ensure the survival of endangered species by growing them in your garden or even on the balcony. Propagate them, save the seeds and pass them on. Yes, we each can play an active role in saving species!
Make your garden wildlife friendly. This can be done by growing wildflowers and herbs for bees and butterflies, not using any agrochemicals and leaving some parts of the garden to nature.
Buy locally grown, organic products as much as possible. By joining the organic movement you are supporting chemical free agriculture. Produce that is grown locally does not have to travel far to reach your dinner table, thus you are helping to reduce CO2 emissions.
While few of us are able to take all of these measures all the time, it is important to remember that every step counts. The more people commit to making a difference in whatever small way they can, the greater the overall impact will be. Life depends on diversity - be part of it.
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