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Friday, May 10, 2013

Evolution in agriculture

Parsnip and short rib dish, Uchi Houston
The popular press has a strange relationship with modern agriculture. Although undisputedly the product of evolution, modern crops are often discussed like they are fragile unchanging clones - well, that is sort of true for some varieties of bananas. The way evolution works is, as conditions change, genetic lineages that are less adapted to the new conditions die off, and more adapted ones increase in frequency. Suitability to human tastes could be one of those conditions - that is why modern sweet corn looks nothing like the ancestral teosinte. Or that modern turkeys have such proportionally huge breasts (and inability to breed without human intervention).

This is an important point to consider as panic seems to be spreading around the mysterious spread of colony collapse disorder (CCD) among domesticated honeybees. Often portrayed as a sudden onset of events (actually, hints of this condition has been around for decades), the hysteria has led to the actual ban of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides, in Europe. Truth is, CCD as a diagnosis is pretty vague - numerous reasons could be behind the death of a colony, yet everyone is on the hunt for the cause, leading to mob-like indictments of various suspects, from genetically modified organisms to cell phone towers.

Calm down. Let's look at this objectively.

Loss of domestic bees will not lead to global famine. Many of our major staple crops (rice, corn, wheat) don't need bee pollination, and even the crops that require bee pollinators can be pollinated by alternative pollinators. All that means is that the supply of these crops, things like almonds, strawberries, peaches, will become constrained - but not extinct. Prices may rise a bit temporarily, but we will adjust. After all, this is just a different set of selective conditions. We can start breeding (or genetically modifying) crops to require less bee-based pollination, or choose parthenogenetic counterparts (fruits that don't need pollination). We can start domesticating (or expand the availability of) new crops that fulfill the void left behind by these traditional crops (cheaper figs, perhaps). And the crops aching to be pollinated will be an ecological bonanza for new pollinators. Perhaps this will seed the return of wild solitary bee populations pushed aside by the domestication of honeybees.

Seen from the perspective of evolutionary transition, CCD can be an exciting turn of biological history. Those that see it in apocalyptic doom and gloom are invested in the status quo, and are, perhaps the financial elites who can afford the luxury of demanding that this restricted set of crops remain eternally unchanging and available.

All the while forgetting that crops always been changing, and haven't always been this widely available.

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