Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Feast or Famine? by Raising Crops That Are Genetically Uniform, Farmers May Be Rsking the Nation's Food Supply

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Feast or Famine? by Raising Crops That Are Genetically Uniform, Farmers May Be Rsking the Nation's Food Supply

Article excerpt

MELVIN BALSTERS can see the attack in his cornfield 25 years ago as clearly as if it were happening today.

Black spots spread across the leaves of the corn plants. The leaves wilted. And few, if any, ears grew.

"You could see it deteriorate right before your very eyes," says Balsters, who at 72 still runs the farm near Bethalto.

His cornfield was one of many victims in a 1970 epidemic of Southern corn-leaf blight. The fungus raced unopposed through American cornfields, costing farmers $1 billion nationally.

The good news is that a switch to corn with a different genetic makeup ended the epidemic the next year. Now, however, fewer such genetic "relatives" are available, and because of their genetic uniformity, corn and other crops remain at risk of similar biological blitzkriegs. And that could mean a catastrophic collapse of the nation's food supply.

That's the message in a new book by Paul Raeburn, an award-winning science editor for the Associated Press.

"This is a widely ignored environmental crisis," Raeburn said in a recent interview.

The book is called "The Last Harvest: The genetic gamble that threatens to destroy American agriculture." It was published in June by Simon & Schuster ($24).

"The Last Harvest" is the first popular book to assess a problem that has concerned scientists for years: the disappearance of the gene pool that is crucial to the continued success of American agriculture. The gene pool is the sum total of genetic variation of all crops on the farm, in seed banks and in the wild.

Like a riverboat gambler who sees his winning cards dwindling but continues to bet, the United States is letting that gene pool shrink past the danger point.

"The Last Harvest" contains several new disclosures about threats to the nation's food supply.

The book cites the roles local scientists have played in trying to reduce those threats. Among them are Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Donald Ugent, a biologist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; and researchers with the St. Louis-based Center for Plant Conservation.

Said Raven: "Paul Raeburn identifies a critical problem: the neglect of relatives of our major crops stored in the world's seed banks and the neglect of biological diversity, which is being lost so rapidly throughout the world."

"The Last Harvest" documents several disturbing trends in agricultural science beyond the genetic uniformity of crops. Among them:

The national network of seed banks - scientific storehouses of crop varieties that protect against agricultural collapse - is failing to keep seeds viable.

Around the world, wild relatives of U.S. crops - which could be called on in an emergency - are going extinct.

Scientists know relatively little about endangered U.S. plants, even though they are potentially valuable for agriculture.

American farmers are tremendously productive, but they are "betting the farm in a way they never intended," said Raeburn, who researched the issue for more than six years while working for AP's New York bureau. "Many are not even aware of the risks they face."

Threats Of Biological Revenge

Ask anyone who drives past the cornfields of Illinois or Missouri what words come to mind; chances are good that one of them will be "monotony." That's because the corn plants all look alike - same color, same height, same number of ears.

Beneath the surface of that visual uniformity lies genetic uniformity. And therein lies danger, Raeburn said.

Corn and other crops are bred for many qualities, including their ability to resist certain pests and diseases. Every few years, the plant's enemies adapt and overcome such resistance. And plant breeders respond with a newer, more resistant variety.

Farmers want the most productive possible plants, but they also want traits that make their crops appealing in the marketplace. That's why consumers are partly to blame for this constant game of genetic leapfrog. …

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