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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Food Politics | Darra Goldstein and E. Melanie Dupuis

If we are to believe the simple slogans surrounding us, all we need do to nurture a sustainable food system is “think globally and buy locally.” But world realities are far more complicated than that. Take the case of Georgia. That’s the Republic of Georgia—for those who think locally—the one in the Caucasus Mountains on the Black Sea. By the standards of politically correct food activists, the farmers in Georgia are doing things right. Their farms are small, and their food is, for the most part, organically grown. The Georgians enjoy the freshest of local produce. Artisanal cheeses, homemade grape spirits, and backyard-dried fruit leathers are widely available. But a network of small-scale farms boasting beautiful soil and careful attention does not necessarily make agriculture sustainable. For better or worse, international exports are needed to make farming viable in Georgia and across most of the world.

During the Soviet era Georgia supplied Russia with much of its produce. I well remember crowded flights from Tbilisi to Moscow with bulging sacks of lemons blocking the exits and aisles—the carry-on luggage of market vendors importing their goods. Georgia was paradise in those days, a land of Cockaigne to Russia’s dearth. Even though the Georgians felt the weight of Soviet oppression, they led a good life.

Now Georgia is autonomous, but Russia still wants to keep it under the imperial thumb. And so a struggle for independence is being waged. This struggle is considerably subtler than the one in Chechnya to the north. It is not fought with guns or grenades, but its effects are still devastating. With many billions of dollars at stake, the Russians are furious that the new us-brokered natural gas pipeline winds through Georgia instead of Russia, and so they have retaliated. Thousands of Georgian workers have been expelled from Russia on accusations of terrorist activity, and Georgian products have been embargoed (an announcement that sent Muscovites racing to the stores to buy up any remaining Georgian wine). Although the Russians will miss Georgian produce, these days they can buy lemons from Argentina and stone fruits from the Netherlands. The loss of their major trading partner is a much greater hardship for the Georgians, whose economy depends heavily on the trade of agricultural goods.

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