Life Without Bananas or Rice? Scientists Try to Save Crops at Risk

BlogHer Original Post
close-up of bananas

Have you ever wondered why, no matter where you go, bananas always look so -- similar? That's because all those bananas -- called the Cavendish -- are genetically identical. And that genetic uniformity could create big problems -- because a single disease could easily wipe them all out.

Banana lovers are not the only snackers with foodie worries. Thanks both to our penchant for monoculture farming and the threat of climate change, the future of many of our staple foods is uncertain. This uncertainty is worrying enough that scientists have kicked off a search for wild relatives of our most commonly consumed foods. The idea is that by revisiting our crops' past, we'll be able to ensure their futures.

So scientists plan to create a "cache of genetically diverse descendants of essential food crops threatened by climate change," according to The Globe and Mail.

Those seeds will be used in a crossbreeding pipeline in which wild and domestic plant varieties will be married to infuse offspring with a blend of genetic traits tailored to withstand the effects of climate change.

Crop-saving crossbreeding work is not new in itself. The BBC details one recent use of this technique:

In the 1970s, for example, an outbreak of grassy stunt virus, which prevents the rice plant from flowering and producing grain, decimated rice harvests across Asia.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute screened thousands of samples of wild and locally-cultivated rice plants looking for genetic resistance to the disease.

They found it in a wild relative, Oryza nivara, which grows in India. The gene has been incorporated into most new rice varieties since the discovery.

And just yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported on another back to the future scenario -- French wine makers turning to ancient vines to prepare for climate change:

Ironically, previous generations of grape growers ripped up vines that matured slowly and replaced them with slightly different variants of the same grapes -- mainly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and half-a-dozen others -- that yielded ripe fruit more quickly....

It turns out that some of these ancient varieties -- a few, such as Mauzac, dating back to the era of the Roman occupation -- will probably fare better in a hotter world than the ones that replaced them.

Now, scientists hope to do similar work on a more systematic basis with a whole bunch of species. And there's a sense of urgency to the scientists' work, since the wild varieties they're looking for could go extinct before they're found, collected, and conserved.

Wondering if your favorite veggie will be among the crops preserved? We don't know yet, because scientists have yet to pick out the 23 priority crop varieties they plan to target first according to The Globe and Mail -- although the BBC's report specifically mentions wheat, rice, and potatoes. To find out if corn, bananas, and apples will also make the list, you can try following the reports from Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is coordinating this effort, as well as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and the Millennium Seed Bank at London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, both of which are playing a role in the project. Or you could just keep reading Blogher; I'll post an update once the list's finalized.

What will happen to the collected seeds? Some will go into seed banks. At The Adventures of The Ping, Ping explains why seed banks are important.

Biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. Industrial agriculture has made many crops less genetically diverse and therefore more susceptible to diseases and pests. Indeed in the event of an environmental catastrophe we may be able to rely on seed banks, but they are a critical source of genetic material too.

The BBC reports that in addition to getting stored in seed banks for the long-term, the seeds "will also be used in 'pre-breeding trials' to find out if the wild varieties could be used to combat diseases that are already threatening food production." Natasha Gilbert at Nature.org's The Great Beyond blogs that this seed program is "vital in helping make food crops more hardy and versatile in the face of climate change."

But the largely popular program isn't without controversy in the blogosphere. Brenda Schroeder at Butterpillar's Flight opines that the collected seeds should be shared more widely:

I believe that keeping the seeds active, growing and in relationship with today's climate and environment will better serve tomorrow's growing conditions. The seeds, the land, the climate and the people need to coevolve together and not develop separately.

What yummy crop could you not do without? Share in the comments which fruit, veggie, root, or grain you hope will make it into the seed vaults. I vote the banana!
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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel ate a banana this morning. She blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

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