As the planet continues to warm, we’ll need hardier crops that will actually survive a hotter, drier environment in order to continue feeding the world’s growing population—and the tiny selection of produce the average supermarket stocks just isn’t going to cut it.
Several non-profit organizations are freezing seed varieties so that we don’t lose them forever, but they may just be storing seeds that are frozen in time—plants that may not be able to survive in a changing climate. That’s why author Gary Nabhan (Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods) and Native Seeds/SEARCH believe their most important work is planting and cultivating seed varieties in order to make sure these plants remain viable.
From PRI’s Marketplace:
SAM EATON: I’m in a tiny Southern Arizona town called Patagonia. And it’s hot. About 107 degrees today. The hills around me are parched and brown. But the field I’m standing in pulses with life.
Suzanne Nelson is conservation director for Native Seeds/SEARCH. It’s a nonprofit that saves and distributes seeds from ancient Southwest crops like maize, beans and sunflowers.
Many of the plants now thriving on this 60-acre seed farm are the same ones southwest Indians cultivated here long before Columbus.
SUZANNE NELSON: This is a brown Tepary bean. It’s got a pretty large tap root. And the leaves will actually fold up on each other so they’re shading each other and preventing water loss through the leaf surfaces.
Qualities that enabled these early crops to survive in the hot Southwest deserts. But today they may hold even more value.
Nelson says plant breeders are racing to craft new seeds that can withstand the heat waves and diseases of a warmer planet. And some of the genes in these ancient heirloom crops may hold the answer.
Peter Bretting is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant gene bank program.
PETER BRETTING: We have found genes for resistance to diseases or insects in genetic materials where we would not have suspected it to be until we tested them.
Bretting says the world’s enormous diversity of heirloom crops is like a vast library of unopened books.
Unfortunately, scientists like Bretting may never have a chance to study many of them. That’s because farmers across the world are swapping out regional varieties for only a handful of high yielding crops sold by international seed companies.
Gary Nabhan is author of “Where Our Food Comes From.”
GARY NABHAN: Globally, we are losing crop varieties as fast as we ever have.
Take apples. Back in the pioneer days the U.S. had more than 7,000 named varieties. Today that number has fallen to around 300.
The USDA’s Peter Bretting says once those seeds are gone . . .
BRETTING: You lose another tool out of your toolbox. You lose another option.