Photo: Vermin Inc, Flickr
With climate change expected as soon as the next twenty years, we're not the only ones to feel the heat. Crops (that is, our food supply) are just as sensitive to temperature, if not more so. But given the many varieties of each crop, they also have excellent adaptive qualities. Unfortunately, we've been weeding out the diversity, leaving few varieties of crops, such as corn or wheat.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust has launched a global initiative to find the lost wild cousins of our most staple crops: 23, including rice, wheat, lentil, oat, barley, chickpea, potato, sorghum and alfalfa. This is the largest effort in history to reclaim and catalog wild crops. Essential traits of these will then be bred into modern crops to make them stronger, just as nature might have done if given the chance over the years. For instance, a modern rice plant blooms at 11:00 a.m. (the hottest part of the day), but an ancient, wild cousin blooms at much cooler temperatures.
"Diversity equals resilience in the biological world, which is why this project is vital to the survival of agriculture," Paul Smith, director of the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a key partner in the project, told US News.
"All our crops were originally developed from wild species -- that's how farming began," Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, explained to US News. "But they were adapted from the plants best suited to the climates of the past. Climate change means we need to go back to the wild to find those relatives of our crops that can thrive in the climates of the future...and we need to do it while those plants can still be found."
National governments will work closely with scientists on the ground to collect the wild crops, which will then be kept in seed vaults (like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic) and made available to the public under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, so that samples can be conserved and genetic information can be shared -- in one way, to train "partners in the developing world in identifying and handling wild species and in plant-breeding techniques," reports US News.
Partnering organizations include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England, the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Biodiversity International. Norway is also contributing the initial funding of $50 million and had offered the secure spot in the Arctic to store the majority of collected seeds. From locating to collecting to studying and adapting these seeds, the project is estimated to take ten years.
But you don't need to join the national search to save seeds. There are, in fact, a few local nonprofits that lend out seeds, like a library lends out books, in order to keep a growing stock of heirlooms. In recent years, America, too, has fallen in love again with some of its forgotten crop varieties -- large, misshappen tomatoes, purple potatoes and other rarities that taste so authentic compared to the generic foods we typically find year-round in the supermarket.
These organizations let you purchase seeds of these heirlooms so that you can plant them and return some for the next generation -- or you could help them in finding more. Look for the Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York, the Seeds Trust in Cornville (Arizona), the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa and the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in San Francisco.