Crop wild relatives — food’s family trees and why we care


Do you know what’s in your food? Not additives, the (unfairly) feared GMO, or comically trivial pesticides or hormones, but what’s really under the hood?

What’s the pedigree of those items that you painstakingly select (or blindly grab) in the grocery aisle? We’re talking its breeding history — a family tree. A DNA time capsule of countless events (planned and unplanned) that have led to “domesticated” varieties and breeds. Nothing an uncomfortably long stare at the label could ever resolve.

After all, livestock have been tweaked to produce more wool, milk, and meat — with astoundingly less feed than just a couple of decades ago. On the crop side, so-called hyperyielders are constantly pushing yield boundaries on an ever shrinking footprint.

We’re constantly told it’s all about genetics and maximizing potential. We basically coddle domesticates, providing fertilizer (plants), shelter/feed (animals), and more. Beyond doting, this is more like helicopter parenting. Take that away, and they succumb to the silliest ailment. Domestication is a genetic bottleneck event — they’ve sacrificed resilience and independence to be spoon fed — divas in their own right. As a consequence, pests, disease, and [insert multiple other stressors] have a field day.

Think about it from your beloved pet’s perspective. Is Fido going to revert to some feral state and thrive if he escapes? Probably not. Even the incorrigible cat is suspect.

But domestic plants and animals haven’t always been so needy. Behind the domestication of every species, there’s been a wild relative in the mix. You have to concede at least a grudging admiration for the retro models. In a breeding program, these relatives inject timeless design elements. Usually practical, sometimes more for flair.

This doesn’t mean we should aim to devolve crops (or pets/livestock) into 100 percent savage throwbacks. No respectable person would suggest we deliberately cross the temperament of wolves and dogs — the aggression factor is just too unpredictable. Similarly, wild crops yield poorly (and produce nasty toxins, a literal bitter fruit) compared to their cultured kin.

No, we want many of those modern day traits like “diva-ness.” But it’s a moderating effect. We also want other attributes best demonstrated by those bad boys in the wild, like pest and disease resistance. Sure they’re a little rough around the edges. But this influence, though subtle, is undeniably present — and injects valuable diversity to the mix.

Diversity is the key term. A recent study traced the enduring legacy of a single peanut hybrid. Turns out, it provided the standard template for pest and disease resistance in the species. As the functional “Eve” of nearly every modern peanut, it made the international rounds like a nomad — cycling hands in a feverish pitch to mainstream the genetics. As a result, farmers used less pesticides, conserved fuel, and had higher margins. All thanks to a little infusion from the (genetic) “wild side.” This very tellingly underscores the adaptive benefits of seed sharing (and prime genetics) in an increasingly resource strained world.

If such a simple act can provide so many social and environmental benefits, it would make sense to prioritize wild crop conservation, right? Alas, the situation is less than ideal.

In Mesoamerica, crop wild relatives (CWRs) are critically endangered. Mesoamerica has the distinction of being the center of origin (aka Garden of Eden) — a biodiversity hotspot for hundreds of crops that we grow today. Of 224 species analyzed (wild standbys of corn, chili pepper, bean, avocado, cotton, squash, potato, and innumerable others), 35 percent were threatened with extinction according to the International Union of Conservation Red List. The causes are the usual suspects, like changing land-use patterns — gobbled up for agriculture — invasive pests, and overextraction of natural resources.

No doubt, there’s a pressing need to safeguard genetic resources like seeds and cultivated plants (including heirlooms), as well as farmed and domesticated animals (heritage breeds). Those are all comparatively easy. International seed exchanges are a noteworthy success story in getting the genes out. Along with seed banks, they’ll mail out seeds without the burden of a paywall or IP encumbrances — a true effort in open access (much like open access software). No strings attached.

But CWRs reside in the wild. How do we target that?

It comes down to priorities and messaging. Save the species, or spare the land? Species specific approaches get donor greenbacks, but seem one-dimensional and shortsighted. Roll initiatives into a broader regional conservation portfolio, with the land getting the nod. Species (CWRs included) will naturally follow. In the meantime, collect and save what we can — committing those resources to seed exchanges and the like.

Despite this, I’m always reminded of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWFs) iconic panda. No matter how you feel about the WWF, it’s been an undeniably effective marketing tool. As agriculturalists, maybe it’s time to take a page out of the WWF’s playbook and brand this campaign with a CWR — our own figurative panda — to highlight their plight.

Amid a backdrop of crises in climate change, food security, and global sustainability, don’t we have a moral obligation to keep the older “cousins” from falling into obscurity (and oblivion)?


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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