Crop diversity declining worldwide

Science Notes: The number of different crops is increasing in North America but other regions are moving more toward monocultures

University of Toronto – A new University of Toronto study suggests that globally more of the same kinds of crops are being grown, and this presents major challenges for agricultural sustainability on a global scale.

The study, by an international team of researchers led by University of Toronto assistant professor Adam Martin, used data from the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to look at which crops were grown where on large-scale farmlands from 1961 to 2014.

They found that within some regions crop diversity has actually increased — in North America for example, 93 different crops are now grown compared to 80 back in the 1960s. The problem, Martin says, is that on a global scale we’re now seeing more of the same kinds of crops being grown on much larger scales.

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In other words, large farms in Asia, Europe, North and South America are beginning to look the same.

“What we’re seeing is large monocultures of crops that are commercially valuable being grown in greater numbers around the world,” says Martin, who is an ecologist in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at University of Toronto — Scarborough.

“So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.”

Soybeans, wheat, rice and corn are prime examples. These four crops alone occupy just shy of 50 per cent of the world’s entire agricultural lands, while the remaining 152 crops cover the rest.

It’s widely assumed that the biggest change in global agricultural diversity took took place during the so-called Columbia exchange of the 15th and 16th centuries where commercially important plant species were being transported to different parts of the world.

But the authors found that in the 1980s there was a massive increase in global crop diversity as different types of crops were being grown in new places on an industrial scale for the first time. By the 1990s that diversity flattened out, and what’s happened since is that diversity across regions began to decline.

He hopes to apply the same global-scale analysis to look at national patterns of crop diversity as a next step for the research. Martin adds that there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favour growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity.

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