Banking on Wild Relatives to Feed the World | Maywa Montenegro

Abstract: Crop wild relatives, the progenitors and kin of domesticated crop species, promise breeders a potent weapon against climate change. Having evolved outside the pampered environs of farms, wild relatives tend to be more rugged to survive temperature, salt, floods, and drought—all the extremes characteristic of a warming planet. But who will benefit from re-wilded crops? What kinds of agricultural systems will they tend to support? And can wild relatives be protected before they are lost under pavement, desertification, and expanding industrial farms? In this essay, I explore different visions of conservation and use for crop wild relatives. With CWR valued at an estimated $115–120 billion to the global economy annually, many researchers suggest ancient germplasm can be harnessed to feed billions in a warming world. Others look more closely at ancient customs and farmer knowledge that have long promoted conservation of wild species within and around cultivated landscapes. By intentionally planting crops at field borders, farmers also perform “in vivo” breeding. I conclude that wild relatives hold much potential to reinfuse diversity into eroded crop gene pools, providing greater systemic resilience. But unless we consider who controls seeds, intellectual property, and wild and agricultural lands, CWR innovations will only prop up an agriculture that ultimately undercuts crop and wild relative renewal.

Not long ago, Native Seed Search, a Tucson-based organization dedicated to preserving indigenous crop varieties, was approached by representatives from Monsanto. Did Native Seed have any samples of teosinte they were willing to sell? The wild ancestor from which domesticated corn was bred, teosinte is scarcely recognizable as a kin of modern corn, the latter with its multiple rows of kernels, plump and sweet. Yet it is in the genes of this wild relative – and those of all the world’s major crop species – that modern plant breeders are eager to find a potent weapon against climate change.

Having evolved outside the pampered habitat of a farm, wild relatives are hardier than most domesticated species. Their traits, say researchers, could potentially be bred or engineered into crops to produce climate-hardy varieties. If you have not yet heard that “weeds will feed the world,” you soon will.

But who will benefit from such wild relative improvements? What kinds of agricultural systems will they go to support? And how to stanch the loss of wild relatives due to climate change, urbanization, deforestation, pollution – and industrialized agriculture itself?

With such questions still waiting to be satisfyingly addressed, much wild relative work is already underway. Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture are looking to red rice, a weedy relative of domesticated rice (genus Oryza), for genes that could make commercially grown varieties more heat-resistant, adapted to saltier soils, and higher yielding even under the driest conditions (Palmer 2014). Other USDA researchers are crossing the countryside in search of wild relatives of sunflower (Helianthus), one of the few domesticated plants native to North America (Harvey 2015). Similar research at CIMMYT in Mexico, the cradle of Green Revolution research, focuses on relatives of wheat (Triticum), with advances in drought- and heat-resistant traits already resulting in edible grain.

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Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: An interview with Seth Holmes | Julie Guthman

from Gastronomica 14:1

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States describes the physical pain and emotional suffering that Triqui migrant workers routinely face during their work in the West Coast berry fields – suffering that is made endemic by racialized work hierarchies and often dismissed by medical professionals. Holmes’s deep ethnographic account is vivid and lucid in its telling, and leaves the reader with a strong emotional impression.


First, let me congratulate you for writing a very engaging and informative book. How did you first come to this project, and what compelled you to write this book in the way you did?

Fresh FruitSeveral of my long-standing interests came together in this project. First, I have been interested in the relationship between the United States and Latin America in terms of economics, culture, poverty, development, and immigration. Second, I have been interested in understanding the place of indigenous or native people in our world. Third, I have been interested in our food system and our relationship to the land, what goes into the production and harvesting of our food, especially the fresh fruit and vegetables celebrated by the contemporary food movement and our health system. Fourth, I wanted to better explore the ways in which physicians and nurses understand health, illness, and social difference.

I wrote the book in such a way as to invite the reader into the narrative and the experiences. I wanted the reader to be able to imagine being alongside me during the border crossing so that they might be more interested in thinking through the inputs into that dangerous experience and the implications of it for so many people. I wanted to counteract the way in which most media coverage and policy debates around immigration focus on blanket statements about “immigrants do this” or “immigrants deserve or don’t deserve that.” I hoped I could convey enough about individual human beings who are migrating that the reader might become invested in understanding their realities and no longer take for granted the general stereotypes we often hear.

People have referred to you as the “new” Paul Farmer. Has he been an inspiration for you and why? Who else has inspired your work?

During my sophomore and junior years of college in the mid-1990s, I did a handful of “informational interviews” of people with interesting careers as I decided what to pursue next. Paul spoke with me over the phone one night after he took care of patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That night and over the years of interacting at conferences and even team teaching a course together, I have been impressed with the ways he seeks to bring together a strong appetite for reading, an interest in thinking critically about health and economics, a commitment to a structural vision of social justice, and a desire and ability to work toward improved medical care on individual and systems levels. In the end, I decided to pursue an MD and a PhD in anthropology and, later, a relatively public engagement with social and health inequalities.

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Making Chipas in Paraguay | Sanra Ritten

from Gastronomica 9:2

An unforgiving sun beats down on the estancia Santa Irene, an isolated ranch in the province of Concepción, deep in the heart of rural Paraguay. Although the ranch is situated along the cool river Tagatiya, the heat and humidity are so unbearable at noon that everyone, from the family members who work there to my group of culinary adventurers, takes a nap to escape the oppressive, 107-degree day at its worst.

Paraguay is a country of extremes. Extreme poverty, extreme wealth, extreme heat, and extreme subtropical rainfall dictate the way of life. We found ourselves at the estancia only because we couldn’t drive any farther. The roads were impassable, flooded by the downpours of the previous three days. Despite the fact that Paraguay is a landlocked country sandwiched between Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, with all of its trade and travel carried out by land, only 11 percent of its roads are paved.1 When the rain is as heavy as it was during our journey, the country is paralyzed.

Firewood vendors on the red dirt road leading to the estancia Santa Irene, Concepción, Paraguay. Photograph by Sanra Ritten © 2007

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The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

from Gastronomica 7:3

According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.

In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.

The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.

In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.

The Plant Hunters

David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.

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From the Heart of the Yucatán, El Turix, Cozumel, Mexico | Rafael Ponce

from Gastronomica 4:2

El Turix is our restaurant on the island of Cozumel, off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Our cuisine is Yucatecan, and the flavors, ingredients, and presentation of our food reflect the history of the region. The Yucatán is the land of the Maya; much later the Spanish came. The region was also influenced by the presence of the French and the Lebanese. In the past the Yucatán Peninsula was isolated from the rest of Mexico. The shipping industry that brought foreign goods to the Yucatán meant that the European influence here was very strong—it used to be easier to go by ship to France from the Yucatán than to travel to Mexico City! Just as the scents from the tropical flowers and the salt and heat of the Caribbean Sea touch our senses, so do diverse cultures permeate our culinary heritage.

I am Rafael Ponce, born in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán Peninsula. I come from a family that owned a brewery for more than eighty years (the brewery is now owned by Corona). I left my family home with a deep appreciation of fine foods.

My mother, from the north of Mexico, created Mexican dishes, integrated Mayan cuisine into her cooking, and had a special passion for French cuisine. But it was the cooking and traditions of my Mayan nana that really influenced the foods of my childhood. From my nana I learned always to look for the freshest ingredients in the market, to give the dish better flavor and color. Even today I roast garlic as she did, by wrapping the cloves in aluminum foil and placing them in a frying pan to cook over slow heat until juicy and perfectly done. I then use the garlic to prepare various sauces. Our manner of marinating meat in orange juice and other ingredients, to give it time to take on fuller flavor, also comes from my nana.

Rafael Ponce in the kitchen of El Turix. Photograph by Deborah Morningstar © 2004

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