FORUM – Biological Diversity and Interdependence – PART ONE

07 Jan 2003

First of all, let me thank the Slow Food Award organizers and their sponsors, Carlo Petrini, and all the rest of you, many of whom I had the pleasure of meeting met at the past editions in Bologna and Oporto. They’ve asked me today to explain what biological diversity is, why it is important and why the prizes we are about to present to these ‘heroes’ of ours are so significant.

The prizes are significant not only because biological diversity (also referred to as genetic resources) is important, not only because without rural diversity there would never be diversity at the table—don’t forget that you are gourmets!—but also because without agricultural diversity, there would be no possibility of a future for the countryside, hence for humanity.

Let me supply a couple of examples.

Many of you will have heard of the famine in Europe in 1835. But only a few of you will know that it was caused precisely by the loss of biological diversity. The potato comes from Latin America, from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. But only a very few potatoes were brought to Europe by Cristopher Colombus and his followers, and they were all pretty much alike: round in shape, brown outside and white inside. These are the potatoes we are familiar with in Europe, the ones we think of as potatoes. They are all identical and uniform, hence without diversity. For two centuries things went well, and in that time these potatoes became the basic diet of people in the countries of central Europe and, even more so, in Ireland, where cereals failed to grow well on account of the dampness of the climate.

In 1835, a disease known as Phytophtora infestans suddenly appeared. In just two years, it destroyed all Europe’s potatoes, triggering the notorious famine that led to the death by starvation of two million people in Ireland alone. Millions more had to emigrate to the United States, which is why Irish surnames such as Kennedy and Clinton are common there.

To find a solution to the problem in Europe, they tried pesticides, insecticides and chemicals, but found nothing that would do the trick. Then someone had a brainwave: why don’t we go back to Latin America, where the potato came from in the first place? Maybe we can find some form of resistance there? It came as a big surprise that the potatoes they found there were all of different colors—red, purple, green—shapes and sizes. The diversity was enormous and, by no means coincidentally, contained resistance to the disease. Different potatoes were thus brought to Europe and crossed with our varieties and the resistance incorporated into European commercial varieties.

The moral of the story? There are many, but let me focus on just a few of them. The first is the importance of agricultural biodiversity for human subsistence. The second is the interdependence of countries. It is precisely the poorest countries that are the richest in biological diversity. Thirdly, here we can note the importance of the interdependence of generations. In Latin America, this derived from the agriculture of ten thousand years ago and from farmers who had had to cope with the disease before selecting precisely the varieties in question. Today, when we speak about environmental changes and unforeseeable needs for the future, we have to remember that it is essential to conserve diversity to be able to address diseases and other problems of which we are still unaware.

This heritage, a treasure developed by previous generations, has to be conserved for future generations. It is not ours, we cannot afford to lose it. Yet take a look around you and see what’s happening. In the twentieth century alone, the vast majority of traditional varieties of the 40 most important species has been lost for good. If a calamity such as the Irish potato famine were to be repeated today, maybe we would be incapable of coping with it. Hence the importance of biological diversity.
Let me move on to my second example. It will help me to explain the importance of the people—peasants, farmers, indigenous communities—who are receiving the Slow Food Award here today. It’s a personal experience that happened to me in the early seventies. At that time, I was studying at Madrid University, hard at work on my PhD thesis and collecting different varieties of melon.

In Spain alone, I was able to collect about 380 varieties—to think that today there are no more than ten.
I found myself in a tiny village in one of the poorest areas in the east of the country. I had collected two varieties and I was waiting for the bus home. A poor, wizened old peasant with a donkey happened to be passing by. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was collecting biological diversity in the form of melon seeds. We were losing diversity and I tried to explain to him why this was. Then he started to speak and it was he who explained why to me. He knew only too well: that was his life and the life of his ancestors. He told me it was all very important and related a series of stories that I jotted down immediately.

“It’s just a pity,” he complained, “that my children don’t always grasp the point.”

“I’ve got a very resistant variety,” he went on, “that never dies, even when all the others do. Do you want some seeds?” “Sure!” I replied. “Then come with me. The place is near here,” he said. It took three and a half hours on the back of donkey, him and me, to get to the spot he had described as ‘near here’. But he did let me have the variety, the seeds that is. Two years later, we discovered in the lab that these seeds were resistant to a fungus to which no other resistance existed. Today the resistance from that small-scale peasant’s seeds is to be found in many commercial varieties all over the world. The man probably died as he had always lived—as a pauper. Yet many, many people have since enjoyed the benefits of the fact that he and, for generations, his family had selected, conserved and made available this biological diversity

I remember six years ago here in Turin I showed this slide to Carlo Petrini, who said, “These peasants deserve a Nobel Prize and I’m going to create one for them”. And so he invented the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity precisely to allow small-scale peasants like the ones here today to be acknowledged for what they really are: benefactors of humanity in the present and in the future.

José Esquinas Alcazar is secretary general of the FAO Genetic Resources Commission. The article is a transcription of the introductory speech he made at the Slow Food Award 2002 Ceremony at the Teatro Carignano, Turin, on October 23 last.

Adapted by John Irving

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