In the past century, our food’s biodiversity has fallen off a cliff, a drop that could lead to disaster. Luckily, the Surprise Valley Farm (SVF) Foundation is working down in Newport to freeze the rare breeds of the world before it’s too late.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 90 percent of the world population is fed by fifteen plant and eight animal species. Including the other ten percent of the world population, the plant count goes up to 150. Those varieties represent only three percent of the 250,000 available species—a pool with only a quarter of the genetic diversity it had 100 years ago.
From 1845 to 1849, a fungus wiped out the Irish potato crop, and the resultant famine killed and displaced millions. The Irish Potato Famine is the most famous example of the risks of homogenous agriculture, but as a nineteenth century problem it sits at a safe distance. A lesser-known crop catastrophe befell the world in the 1990s.
The Cavendish banana is the most popular banana in the United States. Every one of the 100 billion Cavendishes eaten each year is genetically identical to the others. In 1992, a strain of fungus known as Panama Disease began attacking Cavendish populations in Asia. Since then it has obliterated plantations throughout Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Australia. Scientists are still struggling to create a strain to replace the Cavendish, a search made all the more difficult by the dearth of diversity in the world supply. Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving heirloom seeds (unmodified, naturally pollinated seeds that have been passed down for generations), estimates that almost 96 percent of commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
Luckily, some farmers and researchers are finding ways to preserve the plant and animal species that haven’t died out yet. Since 2008, when it opened on a remote Arctic island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has become an emblem of the seed preservation effort. Far from any likely target of nuclear attack, and with only one door jutting out from a snowy hillside, the Seed Vault’s purpose is to “secur[e] duplicates of all [seed] collections in a global facility as an insurance policy for the world’s food supply,” according to its website. Anyone can suggest seeds for storage, and the shelf space is free.
Nicknamed the “Swiss Village” for its quaint architecture, the SVF Foundation’s Newport, RI location might seem better suited for summering than sidestepping doomsday scenarios, but it shares the Svalbard Seed Vault’s goals. Rather than storing seeds, though, the foundation focuses on livestock germplasm (livestock semen and embryos). The Foundation focuses on heritage breeds, the fauna equivalent of heirloom strains.
Working with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, the Foundation saves germplasm through cryopreservation (think Ted Williams, but with animal spunk). Later, frozen embryos and sperm can be thawed and transplanted into surrogate animals. For each breed, SVF collects 200 embryos and 3,000 straws of semen—enough, they hope, to resurrect any extinct line within one generation.
If the extinction of cows and goats sounds far-fetched, consider the facts: the FAO has determined that 20 percent of domesticated animal breeds are in danger of dying out. Over the past fifteen years, 190 breeds have gone extinct.
The decline in livestock diversity started after World War II, when industrial farming took off. Sarah Bowley, the SVF Foundation’s project manager, noted that “at one point, the farm cow would pull the plow, be milked every day, and be eaten at the end of its life.” That multi-purpose model fell away as industrial farms selected specialized breeds. In a streamlined production line, a meat cow no longer needs to make good milk, a milk cow doesn’t need to produce tasty meat, and neither has to rear young or work in the fields.
Thanks to this specialization, food in the US is dominated by a handful of breeds. 83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, 60 percent of beef cattle are Anguses, Herefords or Simmentals, and 75 percent of pigs come from only three breeds. The resultant efficiency makes it possible to feed a world population of 6.5 billion, but the safety that comes with diversity is lost. That’s where the SVF Foundation comes in. As Bowley put it, “we don’t think there’s anything wrong with modern agriculture, as it’s the only way to feed the world, but at the same time we want to counterbalance by preserving the diversity that we’re starting to lose.”
Campbell’s Soup Company heir Dorrance “Dodo” Hill Hamilton founded the SVF Foundation to create a ‘library’ of frozen genetic material from endangered livestock breeds, and in its goals, the SVF Foundation remains exactly that. Rather than trying to revive the dying breeds for some abstract principle of conservationism, it aims to keep the genetic material on its shelves as a resource and reference for the future, while the specific purpose remains open-ended.
As remnants from a simpler era, heritage breeds are genetically equipped to deal with local environmonts, rather than factory meatyards. This makes them generally hardier than their coddled relatives, and means that their genome is a kind of wildcard, with resistances and adaptations buried within.
The Ossabaw Island hog is a perfect example. Isolated off the Georgia coast for centuries, these feral hogs are believed to be the closest genetic match for the first pigs brought to the New World by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, but their environment has resulted in an interesting adaptation. With food on the island scarce for large chunks of the year, the hogs have developed the ability to store vast amounts of body fat, a biochemical adaptation similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans. This makes them the perfect replacement for humans in clinical trials. It’s a medically significant find that was almost lost, as the species teeters on the brink of extinction.
The SVF Foundation hopes that by saving the frozen germplasm of such potentially useful breeds for years to come (“we’re talking hundreds of years,” said Bowley), as yet undiscovered new uses for the animals wont be lost to history. Right now, the Foundation has the genetic stuff of the Gulf Coast sheep in its facility, a breed well adapted to heat and humidity, given its home turf, but also endowed with unique anti-parasitic traits. In New Zealand and Australia’s sheep flocks, the gut-eating parasitic worms have recently become resistant to anti-worm medication, much like how bacteria can become drug-resistant if antibiotics are overused.
According to Bowley, the Gulf Coast sheep is “not the best looking sheep in the world,” but given the wormy circumstances, “at the end of the day, they’re alive.” Their wool isn’t good enough to replace the commercial population, but if a genetically accurate enough technique is invented, the anti-parasitic power could be inserted into the woollier sheep’s genes. This could save millions of bleating lives and untold stacks of Aussie dollars.
So, while the SVF Foundation has no specific ends in mind, it works to be the facilitator of innovation to come, a “bridge to the future,” as Bowley said. For biosecurity reasons (no flies invited to the genetic soup), the facility is usually closed to visitors, but this coming June 12th, the gates will be open to the public for one day. If you’ve got the time, go visit—you could meet your food’s past, and maybe its future.