The Birds, the Bees….and Plants

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The following blog, written by Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group member Cary Fowler, was adapted from the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s Crop Topics.

Recently I was being interviewed over the phone by a journalist and was trying to explain why crop diversity is important. “It’s the raw material for plant breeding,” I intoned.

Silence on the other end of the line.

Then the young woman, whispered “plants breed?” There was a stunned almost horrified edge to her voice.

My first thought was “didn’t your parents talk to you about all this?” Or maybe a high school biology teacher? Then it dawned on me. She was dealing with a double shock. First, that plants breed. And second, that there are plant breeders!

The Global Crop Diversity Fund works to ensure that plant breeding is possible - and food security more likely - by conserving the required crop diversity and making it available for breeding all around the world. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Help needed

It’s summer in Rome. Not long ago I was walking to work on a carpet of pollen. It coated everything. Sidewalks, terraces, cars, everything. A plant orgy all around me.

The young journalist who got more than she bargained for during our interview is probably not so different from my neighbors here in Rome. They endure the pollen season – unavoidable evidence of plants breeding – without wondering what’s going on. And, when they shop at the local market and bring home different varieties of apples, peaches and tomatoes, they don’t spend too much time thinking about the sex that lay behind those fruits or the development of the different varieties.

When it comes to sex, the difference between wild plants and our domesticated crops is that the latter need help.

Farmers replant their crops every year from either saved or purchased seeds. Natural selection for crops is mediated and overseen by professional plant breeders who decide which plants will be used to fertilize the others. They do so with a goal in mind: producing a new variety with characteristics drawn from each of the parents.

With hundreds of pests and diseases striking wheat, a crop produced in virtually every country and countless different environments, one can easily understand that wheat needs a hand. A breeder! In far too many countries, however, that person does not exist.

When a virulent new wheat disease burst on the scene in Uganda in 1999, there were no breeders. The disease has spread to the Near East and is headed towards the wheat growing regions of South Asia. A handful of genes that provide resistance have been located. They now need to be incorporated, i.e. bred, into new varieties. Actually, into all the different varieties tailored to all the diverse places where wheat is grown on the planet.

Wheat breeders are justifiably alarmed. If the disease strikes before resistant varieties are developed and deployed, losses of up to 80% can be expected.

A neglected pipeline

Unfortunately an FAO survey of plant breeders revealed that most felt plant breeding capacity was declining -for grains, vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, everything, ironically, except sugar plants. We have all become dependent on a tenuous cadre of plant breeders, the collections of crop diversity with which they work, and good luck.

Indeed, investments in plant breeding have languished or even declined, while the number of hungry has climbed over a billion. There’s a connection.

As much as we love food, we take its production for granted.

As a youngster I accompanied my grandmother each fall to the agricultural experiment station for western Tennessee, in the U.S. There she surveyed row after row of new soybean, cotton and corn varieties with her own eyes. She asked questions about their characteristics. Did they have this or that resistance? How did they stand up to the heat? What yield might she expect?

My grandmother understood plant breeding and the value of new crop varieties that kept pace with the enemy.

She was better armed for the struggle in the 1950s than millions of farmers are in Africa or almost anywhere in the developing world today. There was a system, a pipeline, delivering crop improvements and solutions.

In many countries, particularly in Africa, you could round up the few plant breeders and put them in a single mini-van for a trip to the fields. FAO’s Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building has assembled the sad statistics. Major crops lack even a single breeder. Last year’s – or last decade’s – variety competes against this year’s pest, disease and climate. The few plant breeders that toil away do so against heavy odds to serve a huge clientele.

Just as our domesticated crops need help to breed, plant breeders and farmers need help to do their breeding. One of the most reliable ways to increase the odds is to help them access a rich store of crop diversity.

Our singular job at the Trust is to help make that plant breeding possible – and food security more likely – by conserving the required crop diversity and making it available for breeding all around the world.

To read more about the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s work for biodiversity preservation see: Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Cary Fowler and “Endangered Species” Means More Than Animals.

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