October 23, 2020

Food in danger of extinction


When we think of endangered species, various exotic animals almost always come to mind, such as the Iberian lynx or the panda. Few imagine that several of the foods that have accompanied us throughout our lives could face a fate also uncertain throughout this century. Foods such as chocolate, avocado, banana, shortfin mako or coffee could become exotic delicacies, at a luxury price, throughout this century. The causes behind this phenomenon are multiple and depend on each food. Often, several factors come together making it even more difficult for certain animal and plant species to survive.

Global warming plays a critical role in the black future of many of the food. The increase in temperatures on planet Earth restricts and hinders the cultivation of plants that need very strict conditions for their development and, on the other hand, reduces the chances of survival of certain animal species especially sensitive to changes in temperature. The scarce or almost zero genetic diversity of various plant species used in agriculture and the appearance and spread of pests that feed on them further complicate their existence. Overfishing, droughts, floods and other factors also contribute to the dark future of different foods.

Bananas: the curse of the clones

About 99% of bananas (Paradise muse) that are exported today in the world belong to a single variety: Cavendish. These bananas are literally seedless clones and their genetic variability is non-existent. They began to be cultivated in a massive way from the 50s of the last century due to their resistance to a plague that plagued bananas of another variety (Gros Michel) at that time: the Panama disease, caused by the fungus. Fusarium oxysporum.

Its worldwide success against the fungus has also become its greatest weakness. Now the Cavendish banana is found in a massive way throughout the world, leaving the other varieties relegated almost to global irrelevance, and it faces two enemies that put their future at risk: the black sigatoka (caused by another fungus) and a new form of Panama disease caused by the adaptation of the fungus Fusarium which since 1960 began to affect Cavendish bananas. Today, a multitude of banana fields of this variety in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Middle East have been decimated by these fungal diseases, which continue to spread around the world and have caused multimillion-dollar losses. Scientists fear the fungus Fusarium It reached South America, wreaking havoc on the production of bananas, which represents one of the economic pillars of different countries in this region.

As Cavendish bananas are genetically identical, when one of the trees is affected by fungi, all the others around it then fall as if it were a domino effect, as they are equally vulnerable. Global warming and droughts are also affecting the cultivation of bananas as this fruit needs a moderate climate, with an abundant supply of water, to ripen. If this rhythm continues, the banana could become a select food. At the moment there is no alternative variety that presents itself as an ideal candidate to replace Cavendish. However, researchers are studying different strategies to prevent their disappearance, such as crossing with other types of disease-resistant non-commercial bananas, genetic modification to introduce fungal resistance genes, quarantine in affected crops, or even destruction before diseases spread.

Cocoa: a too demanding crop

The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is a plant that requires exquisite conditions for its cultivation, typical of tropical rainforests: high and constant humidity, nitrogen-rich soil and moderate temperatures throughout the year. Because of this, the areas of the world in which cocoa production is possible are limited to those within a narrow tropical strip of 15-20 degrees north and south of Ecuador. Ghana and the Ivory Coast are currently the main producers of this food used to make chocolate. However, this scenario could change considerably in the coming decades due to the progressive increase in global temperatures as a consequence of climate change.

A world “heated” by greenhouse gases presents itself as a difficult scenario for the survival of cocoa. The greatest danger lies not so much in the rise in temperatures themselves, but in the increased evaporation of water. If the rains are maintained or decreased (a situation predicted by the researchers in this field), this increased evaporation would lead to a loss of environmental humidity, so necessary for the cultivation of cocoa. The few areas suitable for cocoa cultivation could be further reduced over the course of this century, and different studies anticipate a considerable decline in production from 2030 to 2050. Pests that occasionally attack these trees and deforestation further complicate matters. the outlook for cocoa. Possible solutions to this problem are the cultivation of cocoa at higher altitudes (from 100-250 meters to 450-500 meters), reforestation to maintain or increase the area occupied by tropical jungles, and genetic modification of the cocoa plant to make it more resistant to pests and low humidity conditions.

Skinny porbeagle, everything is fleas

The situation for sharks is especially delicate today. In March 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found, after a detailed study, that 17 species of oceanic whitetip sharks were in danger of extinction, mainly due to overfishing. Within this group of endangered sharks, one stood out above the others: the shortfin mako or Mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), one of the most consumed sharks in the world. This shark not only attracts attention because it is the fastest aquatic animal in the world (it can reach 124 km per hour), but because its fishing for its fins or meat for human consumption continues to be carried out without international limits. The population of this shark has been reduced by 60% in the North Atlantic alone in the last 75 years. Spain is in the lead in Europe in the catches of the Mako shark and, for the moment, the fishermen only have to save red tape and additional costs for their fishing.

The porbeagle, like other sharks, has a low reproduction rate (small litters) and a very late sexual maturity. Females, for example, reach sexual maturity between 15 and 18 years. This implies that any decrease in its population requires a long process for its recovery. In fact, even taking strict measures to control their fishing, scientists point to very distant dates to restore their population in the North Atlantic. For example, if your fishing were restricted to 300 tonnes or less per year from 2020, there would be a 60% chance of recovering your population in the next 50 years. The situation of the species is so serious that some voices point out that sustainable trade may not be possible, while overfishing continues at this time. Other calculations indicate that even if the Mako shark fishery is completely abandoned, its population will continue to decrease until 2035.

In August 2019, the CITES Conference (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) took place in Geneva in which it was decided to include the shortfin mako in Appendix II, which implies that this species cannot be marketed unless unless it is proven that your fishing does not threaten your chances of survival. This treaty is of great importance in regulating international wildlife trade. However, despite this decision, as of November, fishing vessels continued to catch shortfin mako without control, knowing that they will soon be required to demonstrate that their catches come from sustainable and legal fishing for export. Throughout that month, the meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), an organization made up of 52 countries, was expected to impose more restrictions on fishing for sharks and, in particular, shortfin mako. Thus, according to the fishing policy decisions that will be taken soon on the shortfin mako, two possible scenarios will be considered in the following decades: either the shortfin mako is going to be scarce or simply disappears from them.

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