I have been thinking about biodiversity for a while, mostly because of work, doing some preparations for the UN Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya in October 2010. Often, the issue is abstract and very difficult to communicate. One story I like a lot because it brings home the urgency is about the Akita dog, a breed from northern Japan that almost became extinct around the time of WW2.
The local breeders were killing the last dogs, selling the fur to the military in order to line the winter coats of officers. Yet, Morie Sawataishi decided to take action to save the Akita (and what a difference one person can make!) as described in the book Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain by Martha Sherill.
Working for Mitsubishi in the remote snow country, Morie decided to rescue Japan's noble, ancient Akita breed—whose numbers had already dwindled before the war—from certain extinction. Raised in an elegant Tokyo neighborhood, his long-suffering wife, Kitako, hated country life, and his children resented the affection he lavished on his dogs rather than on them. The book brims with colorful characters, both human and canine: sweet-tempered redhead Three Good Lucks, who may have been poisoned to death by a rival dog owner; high-spirited One Hundred Tigers, who lost his tail in an accident; and wild mountain man Uesugi.
The problem with the phrase "saving biodiversity" is that you have to think many generations ahead. You can't just catch a bunch of pandas and put them in a cage in a zoo. That's not going to do the trick, even if they breed. You need what experts call genetic variation, and a biotope (or habitat), and protection against alien (or invasive) species. And you need to avoid inbreeding, which is very tricky if you only have a few animals left of a certain breed in that cage in your zoo.
What Morie Sawataishi did back in the 1940s was not easy, but he had one essential factor that worked to his favour: time.
Morie and his dogs were heroes every morning, and heroes again every night. With each walk into the wild, they were bold and resourceful. They were alive and alert, their senses acute, poised for the natural excitements that the rest of us must crave when we turn to flickering screens for adventures and when we ache to connect with nature and animals. We yearn for the company of dogs because they return us to an ancient way of life, vanishing now.
I have written about biodiversity on several occasions here on Kurashi, also mentioning food biodiversity issues. Simple things like vegetable seeds are amazing treasures, much more valuable than any other commodity. They promise food on the table, not only for you today, but for you tomorrow, and after that, and for future generations. Yet, we are currently experiencing an era when loss of genetic variation in seeds (and in animal livestock breeds) is more serious than ever - at the same time as world population is increasing.
Saving a clever breed of dog is one thing - saving unique and important varieties of rice or wheat or potatoes are key to our survival.
There is a story from Leningrad during the 900-day siege in 1941 to 1944, when food was just not reaching the city, and thousands of people were dying. But the city also had the world's most important collection of seeds. Brief summary of Cary and Pat's book Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity
After the evacuation in 1942, thirty-one people were left at the institute. They were given a daily ration of 120 grams of bread. Fourteen died of starvation in December. Why would these people starve to death surrounded by so much food? Dr. Tchuvashina looked at us as if we must already know the answer - they were students of Vavilov. But what did they think they were doing saving all these seeds? What did they say to themselves as they slowly and collectively starved in this big old building? Dr. Tchuvashina reminded us that these scientists knew the value of genetic resources. Vavilov had taught them that. From where they were it looked as if humanity was destroying itself. Someday it would need these seeds. "When all the world is in the flames of war, we will keep this collection for the future of all people."
Recently, ETC Group notes:
The first gene bank was built in St. Petersburg almost a century ago by the renowned Russian geneticist, N.I. Vavilov. Vavilov and his disciples scoured the planet searching for crop seeds that might be used to give Russian agriculture a boost. Only heroic efforts protected Vavilov’s collections during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II but even this heroism was not enough to withstand Stalin and the collapsing economy of the Soviet Union afterward.
I first learnt about this amazing story in a Uppsala-published journal, the main publication of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in one of the articles by Pat Roy Mooney, called Development Dialogue (pdf). I met Cary Fowler and Pat in Sweden when I worked for the Swedish Consumer Coalition.
Here is the story: the few remaining scientists in Leningrad prefered, if that is the right word, can you imagine the dedication - deciding to save the precious genetic resources, that they knew were crucial for the survival of so many? They decided to starve rather than eat the seeds collected by Vavilov! That shows just how well they understood the importance of each one of the collected seeds, their variety and also the information about the biotops where they had been collected.
Ethnobiologist, conservationist and farmer Gary Nabhan has the story of a profound visionary who set out to end famine, and the price he paid. Gary's latest book is Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Listen to his talk here on The Splendid Table.
There is also the amazing story of Norin 10, a shorter variety of wheat that Japanese plant breeders in Iwate prefecture identified and promoted in 1935, and which was later introduced around the world to avoid some of the damage from heavy winds and other hardships. Read more about heritage wheat - doesn't it make you wonder what your daily bead is actually made of?
Saving a dog, a bird, a panda - or saving rice or wheat or veggies. And now, here in Japan, we are faced with calls to stop eating maguro, the blue-fin tuna, or they may become extinct too. We have a lot to learn.
Hat tip to James at Japan Probe for the post about Dog Man ;)