ROME -- There's big trouble down on the farm.
Revolutionary successes in the quest to feed a hungry, ever-growing world are also nonchalantly decimating nature's kingdom.
So this is progress?
Since the beginning of this century, 75 percent of the genetic diversity of the world's agricultural crops has been lost. In Europe, about half of all breeds of domestic animals that existed in 1900 are extinct. A third of the breeds that remain could be gone in 20 years.
About 6,000 apple varieties that grew on American farms 100 years ago are gone. Globally, domesticated animals are disappearing at the rate of one breed a week in a rapidly accelerating and potentially apocalyptic chronicle of human destruction.
Ironically, this is occurring as a byproduct of modern technological sophistication: Farmers cultivate for maximum efficiency and yield, soon concentrating on the best, most productive few. This, however, leaves more and more species -- plants and animals -- to fall into disuse and obscurity.
The dangers of the massive genetic erosion that results alarm specialists at the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization here who monitor the world's plant and animal life. They call it "a catastrophe in the making."
"Evolution has always led to extinction or mutation -- man can't stop that," said Hartwig de Haen, FAO assistant director general in charge of agriculture. "But we are seeing a dramatic decline in the number of useful plant and animal species. And this time -- often unconsciously -- it is provoked by human action. We have an obligation to maintain what is left as a promise for the future."
Editors of a new study on genetic resources published this fall say that while international public attention focuses on tropical forests, "biodiversity in farmers' fields is at least as significant, since it underpins our basic food security."
A pioneering FAO World Watch List, published last month, shows that of about 4,000 known breeds of farm animals, 1,000 are threatened by extinction. On a detailed, depressing endangered list are California's San Clemente goat and Santa Cruz sheep; Florida Cracker cattle; the Rocky Mountain horse; the Navajo-Churro sheep; Maine's Katahdin sheep, Iowa's Cream Draft horse; the Tennessee Fainting goat; the red Minnesota No. 1 pig, and the black Montana No. 1 pig.
"Only about a decade ago did we become aware that organisms were being lost in great numbers," said Robin Welcomme, a senior FAO fisheries officer. "Once we began documenting what we are actually losing, people got very scared very quickly."
In an otherwise glum picture, there is good news: International recognition of the need to conserve diversity among animals and plants officially comes of age this month. A protective Convention on Biological Diversity goes into effect among 34 nations that have ratified it. An additional 120 countries, including the United States, have signed but not yet ratified the accord, which establishes global priorities, policies and mechanisms for preserving biodiversity.
"The convention is a flag, an alert, a warning," Mr. Welcomme said. "There is no doubt we are losing a considerable amount of our biodiversity at a progressively increasing rate. But the convention can't solve the problem. Individual countries must do that."
While the convention is widely seen as a key step toward improved international protection and conservation of genetic stocks, incalculable damage already has been done, FAO experts lament. And more occurs every day.
FAO specialist Cary Fowler was an avid apple sleuth back home in North Carolina. He counted 7,091 American varieties listed in state and federal reports at the turn of the century. Comparing old lists with ones of apples now grown in Europe and North America, he found that 86 percent of the old varieties are functionally extinct -- no longer known to be grown.
"It was through control of the scattering of wild seeds [and their pods] that humans first domesticated plants. Now control over those very plants threatens to shatter the world's food supply," said Mr. Fowler, co-author of the book "Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity." He is in Rome helping to develop a first overview of the state of the world's genetic plant resources and a companion global action plan. Publication date: 1996.
"Most people think of biodiversity as butterflies and ferns, but we are not talking so much about species diversity as diversity within species," Mr. Fowler said. "Extinction is not simply an event that happens when the last one dies, but a process. Extinction is what happens when a species loses its ability to evolve."
"Biodiversity" can be quite a mouthful, but the National Academy of Sciences defines it simply as "the variety and variability among living organisms, and the ecological complexes in which they occur." Think of biodiversity as the palette that nature has bestowed on humanity. With every new extinction, a color vanishes forever, diminishing both the artist and any potential creations.
Diminished biodiversity is a function of need and, sometimes, of greed: Farmers in India, Italy and Indiana all seek the best return for their investment of land, time and money. Their everyday agenda is very different from that of agrocrats in Rome and the representatives of public and private groups around the world that increasingly fly biodiversity's banner.
Imagine the reaction if you tried to persuade a poor farmer in Botswana, Bolivia or Bangladesh to plant some secondary local variety of a crop because the survival of its genetic code might prove important a century or two hence.
The supreme irony is that erosion of agricultural diversity is an unhappy byproduct of the industrialized world's responses to the specter of world hunger: the genetically engineered Green Revolution that feeds the greatest population in the planet's history.
Improved seeds, monoculture (cultivating just one crop), fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation all make for high-input, high-output farming: bumper crops -- if nature smiles -- but at great genetic cost as old-timer varieties are forsaken for the latest, bio-engineered marvel.
"Our genetic diversity is a patrimony of 10,000 years of agriculture -- farmers passing seeds from generation to generation. But a negative effect of the Green Revolution has been to destroy thousands of varieties of plants," said Jose T. Esquinas-Alcazar, secretary of the FAO commission on plant genetic resources. "We can't stop improving crops when the world is hungry, but neither can we allow great genetic losses to continue.
"If we don't preserve what is left, we mortgage the future," he said. "Genetic diversity is a kind of bridge between development and conservation."
Today's emerging science of biotechnology can foster biodiversity in such areas as improved collection, identification and storage of useful genes.
Without conservation, though, FAO specialists fear that biotechnology could unleash a harrowing new wave of genetic erosion. A company in Chile, for example, can propagate up to 10 million eucalyptus seedlings, all clones, in an automated nursery.
"Similarly, commercial semen and embryo transfer services for domestic animals raise concern about the displacement of traditional livestock breeds," an FAO report says.
New crops have replaced traditional and wild varieties on a vast scale. By 1990, in the fourth decade of the Green Revolution, new crop varieties covered half the world's wheat and rice lands. One-third of American prairies are planted under one variety of wheat today. Agronomists say that just 10 varieties of rice will soon cover three-quarters of the areas where 30,000 varieties once were harvested.