Perhaps dealing with climate change requires bold, even dramatic steps. Now that the Cancún climate change conference has ended with a diplomatically modest advance in various proposals (based on modest expectations) – and most of the difficult issues punted to the meeting next year in South Africa – it seems likely the best the world is going to do is small steps.
Small steps can make a difference, if we’re lucky. I’m thinking specifically of a new program launched by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. This is a cooperative effort, funded substantially by Norway, to identify, collect, catalog, and save seeds from the wild relatives of wheat, rice, beans, potato, barley, lentils, chickpea and other fundamental food crops. This is to be the largest program of its kind and involves national agriculture research institutes, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (UK), and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
Most of today’s food plants are derivatives; they were selected for many (sometimes hundreds) of generations from original wild plants. Most of them were selected for climates in the distant past. The climate conditions the Earth is facing: extremes of heat and cold, drought and flood, and overall a general rising of temperatures will test the viability of many of these food crops. One of the things that can be done to improve their chances is to study and utilize the genetics of the wild versions. Many of the original plants are more robust than their modern descendants and have genetic traits that can withstand drought, frost, or other climate variations better than the modern hybrids. With current genetic techniques, it is possible to transfer some of these traits to new hybrids – if, of course, there is enough of the wild variety available for the task.
That’s where the Global Crop Diversity Trust steps in. The wild seed collection program is scheduled for ten years and will cover 23 global food crops. The collection and preservation portion of the project will identify the wild seeds, collect them in quantity, and store them in protected sites around the world, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Spitsbergen Island, Norway). Another phase of the program and at least equally important as preservation, is called ‘pre-breeding.’ It entails the development from wild seeds of lines with traits compatible for hybrids with contemporary seed lines.
The motivation for this pre-breeding approach is that global climate change brings a great deal of uncertainty. It is difficult to say when, where, and how much the changing climate will affect crop growth. On the other hand, it is held for a certainty that with or without a global effort to limit the effect of climate change, there will be effects on food crop productivity. It’s projected that drops of 10-30% of yield will be common for some areas of the world (particularly in the underdeveloped countries). Such drops threaten famine. Having a seed stock prepared with many different traits could make it possible to respond quickly and precisely to variable conditions. As expressed by Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust:
“This is a game changer,” said Fowler. “This project will provide us with enormous amounts of diversity, and will provide plant breeders and farmers around the world with access to that diversity. We’re going to find resistance to diseases and pests that farmers have never had before. If—and it remains an ‘if’—we are to adapt agriculture to climate change, we need to stack the odds heavily in the farmers’ favor. This does just that.”
There are many food production problems caused by global warming – ecological imbalance, coastal flooding, and more violent storms – but in this one area, flexibility of food plant traits, a global effort is focused, funded, and underway. A step in the right direction.