Crop wild relatives, the progenitors and kin of domesticated crop species, promise breeders a potent weapon against climate change. Having evolved outside the pampered environs of farms, wild relatives tend to be more rugged to survive temperature, salt, floods, and drought—all the extremes characteristic of a warming planet. But who will benefit from re-wilded crops? What kinds of agricultural systems will they tend to support? And can wild relatives be protected before they are lost under pavement, desertification, and expanding industrial farms? In this essay, I explore different visions of conservation and use for crop wild relatives. With CWR valued at an estimated $115–120 billion to the global economy annually, many researchers suggest ancient germplasm can be harnessed to feed billions in a warming world. Others look more closely at ancient customs and farmer knowledge that have long promoted conservation of wild species within and around cultivated landscapes. By intentionally planting crops at field borders, farmers also perform “in vivo” breeding. I conclude that wild relatives hold much potential to reinfuse diversity into eroded crop gene pools, providing greater systemic resilience. But unless we consider who controls seeds, intellectual property, and wild and agricultural lands, CWR innovations will only prop up an agriculture that ultimately undercuts crop and wild relative renewal.
Banking on Wild Relatives to Feed the World
Maywa Montenegro is a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, with a master's degree in science writing from MIT. Her research focuses on seeds, agroecology, and food system diversity, with writings on these topics appearing in the journals Agriculture and Human Values, Globalizations, and Gastronomica, as well as popular venues such as the Earth Island Journal, Ensia, Seed Magazine, and the Boston Globe.
Maywa Montenegro; Banking on Wild Relatives to Feed the World. Gastronomica 1 February 2016; 16 (1): 1–8. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2016.16.1.1
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