The Story of Seeds

If we're going to talk about famine, though, first we need to talk about agriculture, and more specifically, seeds. Seeds have undergone a large -- and for the most part, largely unheralded -- transition over the past several centuries, perhaps no more so than as in the 20th century [source: Tomanio]. In the past century, high-yielding hybrid seeds took a tour de force across much of the world, out-competing native strains whose harvests weren't as robust. Hundreds of millions of people were more properly fed in the process, but with that came a price [source: Seabrook]. Loss of plant diversity plagues the mind of many an expert in agriculture, and the main concern is that by practicing monoculture, and relying on those few, high-yield varieties, we lose valuable long-evolved genetic biological defense mechanisms. If a major staple crop fails, many may starve.

Efforts to foster cooperation and exchange between nations where seed varieties originated, and nations where those seeds were subsequently enhanced artificially, have been ongoing for several decades. It's a delicate dance to foster international food security, and one that is still being tapped out on the dance floor. Some argue that hybridized and genetically modified seeds are the intellectual property of the developer; others believe that since the base products have been cultivated by those people for thousands of years, such a move is biopiracy. Then there are arguments over the finished products. The higher yields of modified crops are helpful for feeding growing population numbers in a warming world, but apart from concerns with monoculture practices, many question whether these products are safe alternatives to naturally evolved crops -- to the extent that some countries will not allow them to be sown within their borders. If we're all going to eat, issues like these must be resolved.

In the eyes of some, an important step in the fight to end famines is returning to a world where farming takes place on the local level and uses a diverse sampling of botanical varieties. In other words, a world free of famine would not be one that catered to global import/export systems and booming agribusiness industries, but rather one where a tradition of seed banking and local distribution systems ruled. One where a farmer grew 12 varieties of potatoes rather than one, in addition to a garden variety of other foodstuffs. Of course, following this school of thought to the letter seems likely to land us squarely back to where we were in the first place: When local crops fail, there's no convenient infrastructure, or store of tradable food, to import emergency stores.

Strictly small-scale operations can still potentially lead to limited outbreaks of famine if crops fail and outside surpluses can't be bought. And large-scale operations can also lead to hunger if monocultures are threatened or global distribution systems falter. So would a world without famine operate somewhere in between those extremes? It seems likely.

Other features of our famine-free world? Money would probably be more evenly distributed, so everyone could afford the food necessary to feed their families, and the economy would display more stability and equality as well. Educational efforts and worker productivity would be more effective, since hunger hampers mental acumen as much as physical abilities. Many wars and armed conflicts would likely be at an end, considering displaced refugees are susceptible to falling prey to famine. In fact, much governmental and industrial corruption of all sorts would reasonably be a thing of the past, too. We'd also probably have gotten climate change under control, because we apparently would no longer be worried about whether our crops could flourish in an increasingly warmer world.

Sounds like a pretty great place, huh? And the list could go on. Hopefully some day we can make it happen. More links to life's big questions on the next page.