A few years ago, Israeli scientists took University of Minnesota agricultural economist Philip G. Pardey on a drive around Israel to see some plants. But not just any plants. The unimpressive, weedy-looking plants were the wild wheat from which our biblical ancestors made their bread.
Those ancient plants may be all that stands between a fungal disease that threatens 90 percent of the world's wheat crop and the survival of millions of people if the disease jumps to other continents. A fungus called stem rust regularly devastated wheat crops throughout the world until the late 1960s, when a resistant wheat variety was found. Then in 1999, a strain of stem rust in Uganda — Ug99 — was found to have overcome that resistance.
But many of the wild, biblical wheat varieties are resistant to Ug99, according to Pardey. And it would be “really valuable” if someone could figure out which variety has the gene that is resistant to the disease, he says.
For scientists at the Kew Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex, south of London, the search is a race against time. Although seed banks exist around the world, Kew is collaborating with more than 50 countries worldwide on the largest-ever effort to collect and conserve wild plant species.
As part of a 10-year program, Kew researchers first hope to save the wild relatives of 16 major food crops — including staples like rice, wheat and sweet potatoes. Then the scientists will help breeders find valuable traits — such as resistance to drought and disease — that can be bred into conventional crops.
Kew plans to preserve seeds for up to hundreds of years, depending on the species, in its modern, glass and concrete building that functions like a time capsule. The seeds can be protected in a vault designed to withstand earthquakes and nuclear accidents, and the building has state-of-the-art facilities for seed-drying and cold storage.
But Kew's secret weapon is the old-fashioned Mason jar, complete with orange rubber ring. After extensive testing, the jars were found to keep seeds the driest.
At England's Kew Millenium Seed Bank, Moctar Sacandé, international project coordinator for Africa, displays a fruit from the African baobab tree that is rich in vitamin C and calcium. Kew is storing seeds of wild foods like the baobab in hope of saving those with valuable traits from extinction. (CQ Press/Sarah Glazer)
To preserve the seeds of heirloom plant varieties in danger of disappearing, Kew's scientists train farmers and home gardeners around the world to save seeds in Mason jars with a bit of charcoal or rice to keep them dry.
“We want to get away from the idea that a seed bank is just for saving seeds long into the future,” says Kew International Projects Coordinator Kate Gold. Kew is part of a broad international effort to save indigenous vegetables in places like sub-Saharan Africa. As diets shift toward processed, Western foods, traditional recipes for nutritious, local vegetables are being lost, along with the habit of growing them.
“If you walk into a grocery store in Dakar [Senegal] or Abidjan [Ivory Coast] you find very few local products; you'll find boxed milk from Belgium and rice from Thailand,” says Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on livestock and sustainable agriculture at the Worldwatch Institute, who has documented efforts to reclaim locally grown foods in 25 sub-Saharan countries. “Indigenous vegetables have been long ignored by research institutes, consumers and farmers because they're considered poor people's foods — or even weeds — so people have lost their taste for them.”
Yet such vegetables often are an important source of micronutrients like Vitamin A, zinc and iron. In school gardening projects, young Africans are re-discovering the tastes of their grandparents by learning to make traditional recipes, according to the institute, which promotes sustainable development.
Kew often finds plants in danger of disappearing by talking to community members who remember eating them. In western Kenya, for instance, Kew researchers discovered 50 plants whose existence and preparation were known only to village elders.
In Zambia, horticulturalist Mary O. Abukutsa-Onyango of Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture, has reintroduced farmers to vegetables that can survive in the marginal, arid soils of Kenya's lowlands. Many of the approximately 200 indigenous plants used by Kenyans in the past now “are either unknown or extinct,” she laments.
Kew scientists also hope to find plants that are resilient to climate change, such as a wild rice relative that flowers at night when it is cooler. If future temperatures rise even a few degrees, rice yields would drop by 30 to 40 percent. But if night-flowering characteristics were incorporated into farmed rice, millions of tons could be saved.
“If we lose all our natural resources, we don't know what options we're cutting off for the future,” says biologist Ruth Eastwood, who coordinates Kew's program to collect wild relatives of conventional crops.
Most seed banks have no way of knowing whether the thousands of seeds they hold have valuable traits, and government funding for the necessary genetic research has been lacking. “If the seeds are sitting in the seed bank and you have no genetic information about them, they're effectively worthless,” says Pardey.
Still, seed-savers like those at Kew are “real heroes” to Jonathan A. Foley, a climate scientist and director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Since agriculture began 10,000 years ago, thousands of crops have been lost. In fact, only 12 species contribute 80 percent of humans’ total dietary intake today, compared to the more than 7,000 that were used at some point in history.
“Throwing away the knowledge of previous generations is a huge loss to civilization,” says Foley. “Who knows when the seeds might be valuable [in resisting] climate change or the next disease?”
— Sarah Glazer