According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 66 percent of total crop production comes from only 9 plant species (ex: rice, corn, wheat), even when there are more than 6000 species grown and harvested for food consumption. This sort of global agricultural monoculture and absence of biodiversity puts our food system at risk, especially with the rising number of harsh, widespread challenges facing food and agriculture today. No longer will it be sustainable or possible to rely on a small subset of organisms to feed 7.8 billion people. Diversity in what we choose to grow, harvest and consume will be part of the solution towards food security.
Plant biodiversity, or the variety and variability of flora on Earth, is a vital part in maintaining a sustainable food system. Variety and variability in plant species allows for an ecosystem that is more resilient to changes in the environment, an issue our planet is all too familiar with. Because there are a greater number of species to rely on, the more biodiverse an ecosystem, the better its strength and ability to bounce back from the consequences of pests, diseases, fluctuating soil quality, climate disasters and more.
One way in which biodiversity is artificially maintained in our world is through plant breeding, a human intervention practice that dates back thousands of years. Through this method, farmers selectively breed plants with the most desirable characteristics in efforts to increase and improve crop production over time.
More recently, plant breeding has had an even greater role in maintaining biodiversity and global food security. According to Washington State University horticulture professor Kate Evans, plant breeding is what enables food production to keep up with a growing population. Plant breeding also has the potential to benefit food security by both increasing nutritional value of crops and producing environmental stress-resistant crops, reducing the amount of food wasted in the harvest and processing tier. Inclusion of modern technologies in research such as biometrics and gene editing (whose use remains controversial) have additionally made it easier and more convenient for plant breeders to innovate.
However, due to the instability and diversity between every country’s environments, creating a new type of crop to be grown in multiple locations requires long-term testing and experimenting, causing the process to be both time and cost expensive. Further funding and investment in plant breeding programs and research technologies will be necessary to ensure new developments of prototypes that can help simultaneously support feeding our population and maintaining our environment.