Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

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Report - 1

Global Ecological Problems and Issues of Ecological Democracy in the Beginning of the New Millennium

A Discussion Paper for the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam Ecological Democracy Working Group






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Loss of Biodiversity and Genetic Erosion

Genetic erosion means the loss of biological diversity, either whole species or different races or varieties of them.

Biodiversity should also be seen as an issue of ecological democracy. How much biodiversity should we preserve for the future generations? Don't we have a duty to ensure that also the people living on Earth after a thousand years might have a chance to see a tiger or a whale?

Also, numerous disease causing bacteria are rapidly developing strains that are resistant to most or all known antibiotics. Our anti-bacterial medicines may become totally useless within a relatively short period of time. Where can the future generations find new anti-microbial medicines, so that their children do not have to die, unnecessarily, to pneumonia, tuberculosis or infected wounds?

Antibiotics are something that certain fungi use to defend themselves against bacteria. However, also the various plants and insects and marine creatures have their own defence mechanisms against bacteria, otherwise it would not be possible for them to survive. This means that the areas that are rich in biodiversity will be the treasure troves of future hunters of new anti-microbial medicines. For this reason, also, it is important to preserve the rainforests and coral reefs: it is a question of democracy between our generation and the future generations.

Another issue is who has the right to develop the cultivars of important food plants, and who controls the genetic reserves of them? At the moment we are rapidly moving towards a system in which the genetic basis of our most important food plants is controlled by a small number of giant transnational companies like Monsanto. This is a very dangerous situation, indeed. The more centralized the system becomes, the more vulnerable it will be.

A more democratic system in which hundreds of millions of farmers would breed and own their own varieties and in which the farmers' organizations would exchange interesting genetic material (seeds) between themselves would be a much safer system from the view-point of food security. This kind of improved traditional plant breeding system would ensure that the genetic diversity of our food plants remains so high that whole crops of the important plants cannot suddenly be wiped out by new bacterial, viral or fungal diseases or by insect pests resistant to all known pesticides. It would also maintain the control of the food production system in the hands of the farmers and their own organizations, and not leave them at the mercy of transnational corporations. Numerous seed-saver networks, ecologically oriented research institutions and peasant organizations in different parts of the world are already working in order to make this vision a reality.

Biologists have described a total of between 1.5 million and 1.8 million species, but estimates about the true number of living species usually range between 3.6 million and more than 100 million. One of the big uncertainties is the number of species living in marine ecosystems. The estimates of total number of marine species have increased from 160 000 in 1971 to 10-100 million at present. What comes to species in land ecosystems, a great majority of them live in the tropical rainforests. The huge rainforest of Amazons might alone contain about one third of the species of the world's land ecosystems.

However, perhaps the most serious aspect of genetic erosion is the depletion of the genetic foundations of our main food crops.

There are between 250 000 and 300 000 of plant species in the world. Of these, 10 000 - 50 000 are edible in their wild forms, and most of the others could be made edible through selective breeding. Formerly, people used to utilize a very wide variety of edible plants as food. Indigenous peoples of North America - an area relatively poor in biological diversity - utilized at least 1 112 different plants for food.

Nowadays only 150 - 200 plant species are widely used as food, and more than one half of the calories and protein consumed by humans come from three species: rice, maize and wheat. Moreover, the genetic basis of the widely cultivated food plants has become frighteningly narrow.

According to one estimate there used to be something like five hundred thousand different varieties of rice in South Asia, alone, but most of them have already been wiped out by a small number of new, high-response rice cultivars. In the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam a single rice variety, IR-36, constituted 60 per cent of all rice production already in 1982. In Egypt, a country that had grown onions for at least 7 000 years, only one variety of winter onion, Giza 6 Improved, remained. More than 70 per cent of the genetic diversity of wheat in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon was destroyed within a short period of time by the introduction of a handful of new varieties. About two per cent or one in fifty of the remaining varieties of our important food plants are now lost, every year.

This frighteningly rapid destruction of the genetic basis of our main food crops is a very serious issue. In traditional farming systems people usually cultivated dozens of different plants in the same patch of land. This reduced, to a great extent, crop losses caused by insects and plant diseases. Because the fields grew a rich mixture of different plants it was more difficult for the diseases and pests to spread. Also, while one plant belonging to a certain species was not resistant to a certain disease or pest, the next individual perhaps was, because the genetic basis of the crops was not very uniform. The great diversity of different plants harboured large numbers of spiders and ants and other natural predators of the pests, which also helped in keeping their populations in check.




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