The Race to Save our Crops
Every Week there's this weird mystery box that shows up at my doorstep. It's one of those subscription boxes, except instead of dog toys or makeup, it's food from local farmers, and I never knew exactly what i'm going to get. I had some salad, greens, asparagus, and some red corn. That's weird. But this wasn't always such an unusual sight. If you look through old seed catalogues like these, you'll see hundreds of varieties of Corn, with names like "dibbles' mammoth," "Kendel's Early Giant," and my favorite
Potters Excelsior. However, None of these varieties exist anymore. American farmers used to grow hundreds of types of sweet Corn, tomatoes, and other edible plants. Today, just a tiny fraction of those varieties are still around. So what happened to all these plants.
For most of our time on this planet, humans have been hunters and gatherers. We ate what was nearby. This was still true when we invented farming 10,000 years ago, by cultivating wild plants like Teosinte in central America and Thorn apple in Africa, the middle east, and southeast Asia. Over thousands of years, farmers bred these wild ancestors into foods like Corn and eggplant, which we would recognize today as humans moved worldwide. So did the seeds and farmers continue to produce different varieties to adapt them to their new environments. This leads to a ton of genetic diversity. Farmers could raise different genetic varieties of different crops. If disease or pests killed one type, there were others to fall back on. But gradually, industrialization and cheap fossil fuels made us less dependent on what grew well nearby. Most farmers switched from a growing variety of edible plants to a single crop that was easy to process and ship. As this model spread beyond the United States, Older types of plants and animals disappeared from farms around the world by 1970, 90% of the wheat varieties that had once been grown in chuma were gone, as were 80% of the types of maize or Corn that were once grown in Mexico.
By the summer of 1971, more than 85% if the Corn planted in the US is genetically identical. Crop scientists had bred this new Corn to grow without a tassel, making it easier to harvest. However, because these plants were genetic copies of one another, that also made them susceptible to the same deadly fungus, southern leaf corn Blight. It took over the US Corn crop, costing farmers and taxpayers millions of dollars and the damage would have continued if it weren't for a humble little plant called Teosinte. The wild grass native Oaxaca, Mexico, and the common ancestors of the 22,000 known varieties of Corn. Teosinte includes a gene for resistance to the same fungus that was devastating to the US corn crop. Scientists halted the damage by cross-breeding Teosinte with American Corn, but that didn't solve the problem. Today more than 40% of the Corn grown in the US is derived from just six inbred lines. Seed companies, driven by profit, can repackage genetic copies of the same seeds for different prices. Farmers plant, thinking they are genetically diversifying their fields when they're not. Since the Corn Crisis in 1971, the disease has ravaged genetically uniform crops of beans, rice, tomatoes, and bananas, and it's about to worsen.
The plants we eat have spent thousands of years evolving to grow in specific conditions. Conditions are changing rapidly by changing more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We depend on Corn, wheat, and rice for more than 60% of our global calories. By 2050, we'll have 2 billion more people to feed. But because of climate change, well actually be producing less of all three of these crops. We're going to need plants that can grow in radically different conditions, and the more genetic varieties we save, the better protected well be. There are seed banks worldwide where scientists, indigenous communities, and farmers preserve older seed varieties. However, thousands have already been lost, which is why it is so critical to keep the genetic diversity we still have—weird stuff like red popcorn. The best way to save the seeds that might save us one day is to grow them out and eat them.