Editor’s Desk: Ag’s wild relatives

If you took a cursory glance at the news, you might think that genetically modified crops are the only solution to the future stresses our food crops will face–from drought to heat to novel diseases. But beyond the narrow GMO debate, there’s another research path that has become vitally important to breeders, even as it has gotten scant media attention: the wild relatives of cultivated crops, the plants that have never been saved, bred and domesticated. They have simply lived in the wild and evolved.

In our first story looking at these wild plants, “Uncharted,” produced with California Sunday Magazine earlier this month, writer Lisa Hamilton traveled to a remote corner of Australia to follow plant geneticists collecting wild relatives of rice–arguably the world’s most important food. In our second story, “The Seed Searchers,” published in Modern Farmer’s fall issue, Nelson Harvey takes a close look at sunflowers, which are native to North America. They are a vital oil-seed crop, a dietary staple in China, and the second-most-cultivated hybrid in the world after corn. To build resilience into cultivated sunflowers, plant breeders are seeking out these heat- and drought-tolerant native plants. They aren’t always easy to gather.

“The scientists have encountered Tennessee churchgoers who suggested that a poorly chosen parking spot might result in busted car windows,” Harvey writes. “They’ve collected on an army base in Georgia during an urban-warfare training exercise, traveling in a Jeep marked with the United Nations logo to keep soldiers from shooting at them.”

Once the scientists manage to collect the plants, the seeds are dried and then grown in research plots in Iowa. The wild-seed resources will be sent to global gene banks and used to breed promising new cultivars. Already, they’ve proven useful for salt tolerance and resistance to diseases like rust and downy mildew, Harvey tells us.

As valuable as these plants are, though, they are equally undervalued, at least when the public discussion turns to global food security. These diverse genetic resources can only be found in the wild, which means that our future food security may be dependent on the wild places that remain.