A series of fluorescent-lit hallways and humming elevators leads to the reinforced steel door of the vault. The only indication of the chilly temperatures on the other side is a rack of a half dozen faux-fur-lined jackets. Pat Conine types the security code into the keypad. The door unseals and swings open with a whoosh.
At 41 degrees with a relative humidity of 23 percent, the indoor climate is controlled meticulously. A matrix of shelving fills the 5,000-square-foot vault. The large room resembles a library, but in place of books are the preserved seeds of some 5,000 plant species essential to food production.
Here, within the rebar-enforced concrete walls of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., are the genetic strands of America’s agricultural security blanket.
“We have lost a lot of genetic material in the past,” Conine says. Today, the massive seed storage facility aims to prevent that from continuing.
The facility collects samples of historic and modern crop varieties in order to preserve the diversity within and among agricultural species. The ways in which such biodiversity is—or is not—incorporated into the future of farming will play a key role in determining the sustainability of the agriculture industry. Put more simply, it may determine whether or not future generations will have enough to eat.
From genetic researchers to agricultural economists, and from commodity farmers to backyard gardeners, the debate over seed biodiversity in the United States continues. The productivity of genetically modified seeds is still pitted against the security that lies in genetic diversity. And as the world population continues to balloon, this conflict is now being rehearsed on a global scale.
“We’re trying to feed more and more people and so they’re using high-yielding varieties to get more food from each crop,” says Conine, who has worked as supervisor of the Preservation Center’s Seed Quality Evaluation Lab for nearly 35 years. “I’m part of the woodwork, actually,” she says, smiling.
The Preservation Center was built in 1958 as a means of safeguarding America in the event of a doomsday-style food crisis. Originally, it was constructed to store seeds and withstand all plausible disasters, including earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. But Conine says that today, human, rather than natural, forces are having a greater effect on biodiversity in modern agriculture.
The food system has always balanced on a strong, if small, pedestal: the seed. As the human population and its food needs continue to grow, scientists are working to improve upon this natural bundle of blueprints.
Genetically engineered seeds, for example, are altered in their DNA to express particular characteristics. One of the most common is Roundup Ready seed, which grows herbicide-resistant crops.
Such GE seeds are an integral part of the agricultural landscape today. In 2009, an estimated 88 percent of corn, cotton and soybean seeds planted in the U.S. were genetically modified, as reported by the European Union Commission’s GMO Compass, and these numbers are on the rise.
Most farmers prefer these more productive and profitable seeds. This reduces the genetic diversity within species, resulting in vulnerability to diseases and other threats, Conine says. Once crops fall into disuse and are replaced by genetically modified upgrades, their genetic traits can be lost forever, she adds.
Exacerbating the problem, she says, is that Americans take biodiversity for granted. “We think we’re entitled and it’ll always be here,” Conine says, as her smile falls flat. “That’s not necessarily true.”
Genetically engineered seeds can lower production costs and boost yields for farmers, according to a 2010 report published by the National Academy of Science. The study team was led by David Ervin, a professor of environmental management and economics at Portland State University. Pests and weeds can be controlled more effectively, Ervin said, using less chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.
But Ervin’s report also warns that sound management is a key factor in facing the economic and environmental costs of these seeds. GE seeds are more expensive than their conventional counterparts and the costs may or may not be offset by the crops’ added benefits, the study reports.
On the environmental side of the equation, the report says that natural reproductive processes can transfer the GE traits to weeds and other crops in the surrounding environment, thus making the traits ineffectual. If a weed becomes resistant to herbicides, this trait is no longer advantageous for the crop — or the farmer.
A more globalized food market and large-scale monocultures, where expansive farm fields are planted with a single crop, magnify the scale of such environmental ramifications.
But Norm Dalsted, a professor of agricultural and resource economics and an extension specialist at Colorado State University, says there are environmental advantages as well.
Dalsted says that GE seeds and intensive farming techniques are actually enhancing the environment. GE seeds reduce the need for chemical applications and tilling to remove weeds, he says, thus decreasing pollution erosion.
Dalsted does have concerns about the future of farming, though. He fears that science will soon reach its limits when it comes to food production. “That’s the scary part,” Dalsted says. “There could be a plateau in terms of how much production we can actually derive out of the land.”
Raised on a family farm in the Midwest, Dalsted has seen the industry evolve over the past few decades. He leans back in his office chair and puts his feet up on his desk.
“My grandfather, when I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, said something that has stuck with me my entire life,” Dalsted says. “He thanked God for the opportunity to take care of his land, and I think a lot of farmers have that kind of attitude.”
Dalsted was fond of the pastoral lifestyle, he says but upon his high school graduation his father insisted he leave the farm. Dalsted went to college at North Dakota State University where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in resource economics, followed by a doctorate in economics.
Dalsted now calculates budgets and runs risk assessments for farmers throughout Colorado. He and his brother still cling to their farming roots by running a harvesting business in the fall and Dalsted also works to inspire the up and coming generation of farmers in his college classes by making them more business savvy.
“Farmers are profit-driven too, ” Dalsted says, but “farmers are the last ones, I think, who will do anything to jeopardize their economic future.” Since their livelihoods depend on the sale of their produce, Dalsted suggests that farmers take care of themselves by taking care of the land.
Dalsted admits that the decline of biodiversity is a weakness of the current agricultural industry, but he has to balance his roles as a former farmer and an economist to address the issue.
“I’m not going to take on some aspect of biodiversity unless it pays,” Dalsted says. Profitability, he says, is still the bottom line. “Where we look at the more productive strains of, say, a certain seed … are we losing some biodiversity?” Dalsted asks. “Of course. That’s why we have the seed lab over here, isn’t it?”
The seed lab, as the Preservation Center was formerly known, acts as a sort of safety deposit box to which genetic and agricultural researchers hold the key.
David Dierig, the supervisory research geneticist for plants at the center, says the facility’s genetic collection is very active. The U.S. Department of Agriculture-run facility aims to keep viable copies of every known variety of crop.
“That’s the mechanism for how diversity gets into the system, and how it’s maintained and backed up,” Dierig says.
The seeds are stored and made available to researchers, who can access the samples for experimentation in the field and in the lab. Farmers and gardeners do not have direct access to the seed collection, but they do have access to the seeds that are produced from it. This is the material from which hybridized and genetically modified seeds are born.
The gamut of genetic material is provided at no cost, but much of it stays on the neatly organized shelves at the Center.
The modern American agricultural system focuses on eight major commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, and rice, according to the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (PDF). Most of these commodities are not produced for direct human consumption. About 60 percent of corn and 47 percent of soybeans produced in the U.S. are used as livestock feed, according to a 2006 study from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an international nonprofit organization that aims to make rural communities more sustainable. The top three commodity crops, corn, soybeans and wheat, produced more than four times the rest of the major commodity crops combined, according to a 2005 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Conine says such dependence on so few crops can be dangerous. She likens the current food situation to conditions that led to the 19th century Irish potato famine. One third of the country’s population, as well as its cattle, were directly and exclusively dependent upon the potato as a food source at the time. When a bout of potato blight hit, the potato die-off was mirrored in its people. In a mere eight years, Ireland’s population dropped 25 percent.
“We’re kind of looking at the same thing,” Conine says, “Except that instead of just a national problem, we’re looking at it globally.”
In historic Ireland, government policies preventing land ownership meant that potato monoculture was the only way many farmers could have enough to eat. Similarly, monocultures of commodity crops today are often the most economically feasible route for farmers.
Government subsidies are one reason these commodity markets stay afloat. The USDA reports that the U.S. spends about $12 billion a year on farm subsidies to curb the risk of market collapse. Nearly two-thirds of that money supports commercial farms, and 70 percent to 80 percent of the funds go toward commodities, according to a 2007 report from the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center.
Dalsted says the government programs exist to keep farmers in business and to make the American food system more self-sufficient. In addition to subsidies, the government also provides funding for farmers to reduce their carbon footprints, rotate their crops and let their fields recuperate regularly in Conservation Reserve Programs.
The issue, as suggested by Dierig, comes down to the value of in situ conservation, where the genetic diversity is maintained in the active farming industry, versus ex situ, where material is preserved in isolated, climate-controlled storage units. It’s kind of like the debate between preserving endangered species in zoos or in their natural habitat. Zoos provide a controlled climate where scientists can manipulate every aspect of their lives, but nature sometimes does a better job than science.
“We can’t really mandate how agriculture is done in this country,” Dierig says. It’s beyond the scope of the Preservation Center’s work. “All we can really do, to our best ability, is characterize that diversity that is within a crop and make it available.”
Take wheat, for example.
Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences regularly takes advantage of the Center’s resources for its hybridizing projects. They work to develop new varieties of wheat that can better withstand drought and other stresses in the semi-arid environment of the American West.
“The wheat varieties that (CSU) plant sciences have developed over the last 10 years have added millions upon millions of dollars to the income of Colorado wheat farmers,” Dalsted explains.
He says drought-tolerant and pest-resistant varieties of wheat have boosted the yield of the crop in the state by as much as 40 percent. These new and improved seeds have made farming more profitable in Colorado.
“There are some extremely creative farmers and ranchers in this state,” Dalsted says. “They can make things work on ground most people would walk away from.”
Ray Pfaltzgraff is one such farmer. He has been working his 2,200 acres of eastern Coloradan soil since 1973. Pfaltzgraff honors traditional agricultural techniques, such as no-till, that were common prior to the current commercial farming era. He also embraces modern technologies, like GPS, that have guided the industry into the 21st century.
“We’re going to have to evolve our thinking if we’re going to stay in business,” Pfaltzgraff says.
By not tilling the soil, he has cut his diesel intake from 10,000 gallons a year to 2,000. This methodology also requires less soil reworking, irrigation and fertilizer, he says. In this way he cuts back on erosion and pollution, which he views as larger environmental issues than a loss of biodiversity.
Pfaltzgraff’s work in the field of agriculture began during his youth, when he helped his father with farming efficiency improvement projects in Nigeria. He has experimented with new agricultural techniques ever since. For example, he stores conventional seeds to compare their germination rates over time.
The traits of GE seeds consistently diminish year to year, which is one reason why the seeds must be purchased annually and cannot be stored. But Pfaltzgraff has found that certain conventional strains of wheat actually have improved germination rates after being stored for two years.
At this point, though, his findings are not informing his planting practices. “It’s more piddling,” he says.
Pfaltzgraff says he changes his annual crops based on the recommendations of an agricultural consultant. Some years it’s sorghum; others it’s millet; one year he even planted sunflowers. The seed selection depends on the soil’s nutrient content and expected forecasts of growing conditions for the season.
Some years Pfaltzgraff’s seeds are conventional. At other times they have been hybrids, produced by cross breeding different varieties, or genetically modified versions, produced by manipulating the seeds’ DNA.
“There’s a lot of brouhaha over these genetically modified crops,” he says. “If you have chlorophyll running through your veins, you might be worried,” he jokes. He says he does not think they are harmful to humans.
In response to fears of genetically modified foods, though, there has been a trend towards organic seeds in recent years.
Lake Valley Seed Company in Boulder, Colo., buys seeds from around the world and distributes them to local garden retailers. Beth Kenney, a manager at the company, says customers today are embracing organic seeds. But organic, she says, is more about the way a seed is grown and less about the seed itself.
“A seed is as pure and true as it can be,” Kenney says. Organic seeds, she says, are genetically identical to conventional seeds. And GE seeds, she continued, are not entirely unnatural. Kenney points out that nature is constantly changing the genetic material in seeds through cross-pollination so the genetic make-up of seeds is never static anyway.
Seed strength lies in biodiversity, Kenney says, and for her that includes both conventional and GE seeds.
The question, then, is whether GE seeds are contributing to the biodiversity of agriculture’s active seed bank, as Kenney believes, or if GE seeds are dominating the agricultural scene and eliminating seed biodiversity in the process.
Conine, based on her years of experience at the Preservation Center, leans toward the latter. She says she fears losing seed varieties because the consequences are still unclear and irreversible.
“It’s scary because once you lose all that other material,” she says, “we’ve lost it.” “We don’t have a ‘Jurassic Park’ yet.”