In the late 1970′s, tens of thousands of Brazilian agricultural workers found themselves out of work due to technological advances on farms. To combat the problem, the government, with help from the World Bank, set up a program to settle people into the rainforest and allow them to farm commercial crops. The hitch? No one had tested the soil to see if it could support the crops being grown. From there, the ambitious social and ecological experiment quickly turned into a nightmare of Hollywood proportions involving strife between ranchers and local tribes, clear cutting of the rainforest, and disease outbreaks of all kinds. What can we learn from what went wrong in Rondônia?
At the dawn of the agricultural revolution, humans began to tinker with our seeds. Over millennia, we’ve managed to breed plants for selective traits and grow more food. As certain crops now dominate our agricultural fields, what will happen to all of those original seeds – and their genetic information – that were used to create our modern food system? We travel to the extreme northern latitudes and visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to see how they are trying to curate our changing seeds. In our second story, we see that humans aren’t the only force that tinkers with seeds. With climate change, certain crops might adapt their own biology to warmer conditions. Cassava, a major food staple worldwide that feeds over one billion people, has already shown the potential to adapt in a strange way – by producing more cyanide. We speak with biologist Ros Gleadow to explore the complex relationship with climate change and the changing biology of cassava.
This episode was produced by Leslie Chang, Mike Osborne, and Miles Traer.
Additional music by Kevin MacLeod (License available here)
Our co-producer, Miles, gives a talk about San Francisco’s hidden nature that is simultaneously informative, funny, surprising and slightly uncomfortable (you’ll know what we mean when you get there). From the gold rush to the bay to the delicious food, Miles tries to explain why humans ever came to the Bay Area… hint: it involves geology. The talk was given as part of a collaboration between the California Historical Society and the Odd Salon.
Fran Moore talks about various ways that farmers in Europe have adjusted to higher temperatures in recent years, and sheds light on the difficulty of singling out the effect of climate change on farmers’ decision-making. She also discusses how differently climate scientists and economists view adaptation. For her masters research, Fran studied the way climate adaptation policy is put together during international negotiations, and she explains why there isn’t a clear definition of what counts as “successful” adaptation.