Frankia and Alnus

There’s a lengthy review of an interesting-sounding book — People and Forests: Yunnan Swidden Agriculture in Human-Ecological Perspective1 — in the latest Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment (though the book seems to have been published in 2001). You do need a subscription, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because in an effort to get around the problem I did some googling, and that not only revealed a very similar review (I know because I had access to the AEE piece at work) by the same person2. It also led me to a resource I hadn’t come across before: People, Land Management and Ecosystem Conservation (PLEC) News and Views.

The March 2004 issue, which includes the book review, is devoted to “agrodiversity.” Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, by Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, PLEC Scientific Coordinator (at the time), which certainly struck a chord:

Smallholder agrodiversity strategies have proved to be effective in dealing with widespread declines in the value of agricultural products, yet they continue to be underutilized by most programmes that aim to reduce rural poverty, environmental degradation, erosion of biological diversity, and other problems affecting rural communities.

Here’s more about PLEC from the website of the Department of Anthropology of the Australian National University:

PLEC is a global network, set up by the United Nations University in 1992. From 1998 until 2002 it was funded by the GEF through UNEP. It brings together over 200 professionals, including more than 130 scientists and researchers, together with 190 skilled expert farmers, and 180 undergraduate and graduate students. PLEC members work out of 65 institutions in Brazil, China, Ghana, Guinea, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Thailand, Tanzania, Uganda, Britain, the United States and Australia. From 1992 until 2002 it was coordinated scientifically by Em. Prof. Harold Brookfield, who is now Senior Adviser.

Conservation through agriculture underpins PLEC’s approach to conserving and utilising biological diversity. Most biodiversity projects relate to protected areas or crop plants alone. PLEC is unique still in its strong and pervading management approach to biodiversity in the context of the livelihoods and social organization of smallholder farmers. Through generations of innovation and experiment, they have nurtured a great diversity of plants and animals, both wild or domesticated, and accumulated rich knowledge of the managed biodiversity.

PLEC also has its own website, where you can subscribe to an electronic list.

Anyway, back to the book about swidden cultivation in Yunnan which started all this. One of the reasons the review caught my attention was the mention of the use of Alnus nepalensis in local agroforestry systems, and in particular the description of that tree as a nitrogen fixer. I had totally forgotten about the phenomenon of “alder-type” actinorhizal symbiosis between some plants and fungi of the genus Frankia. Fungi are agricultural biodiversity too!

  1. By Yin Shaoting, professor of anthropology at Yunnan University in Kunming []
  2. Prof. Harold Brookfield of the Australian National University []

4 Replies to “Frankia and Alnus”

  1. Asking for varieties of Alder which could be used to breed Alder as a grain

    I have started a truly wild project – developing alder as a grain crop!

    I have embarked on a project to develop Alder (Alnus) as a grain crop. If
    you look at an Alder tree and imagine that each cone was replaced by an ear
    of wheat of the same size, it would be a good crop. Alders do not cast a
    heavy shade, grass grows beneath them, and animals could be pastured on the
    land. My aim is to make use of the uplands of Britain, though it could also
    be grown on lower land and elsewhere in the world.

    I have provisionally chosen Alnus incana because it grows higher and further
    north than Alnus glutinosa, and also because it is less dependent on water
    than A. glutinosa. But the two species hybridise and I may change my choice.

    I foresee that the trees will be grown in rows to form a hedge. The cones
    will be pulled off using a mechanical comb and threshed in something like a
    combine harvester. But some improvements will be necessary for commercial

    I already have a variety which allows the cones to be pulled off easily.

    The main problem with Alder is that the cones are too difficult to break
    open. The seeds are fully grown by leaf-fall. The cones open first around the
    middle, then over the winter they open towards the end, so the seeds fall out
    over the winter. What I want is a cone which :-
    * Does not open until after leaf-fall.
    * Is strong enough not to break open when the comb pulls it off the tree
    * Is fragile enough for it to be broken inside a harvesting machine.

    This is the opposite of wheat domestication. In the case of wheat, the heads
    of wild wheat shattered and for domestication to succeed, the heads had to
    stay intact.

    I also want bigger seeds. All cultivators want bigger seeds!

    Varieties which go at least part way to meeting my needs would be welcome.

    I would be very grateful for living material, cuttings or seeds. If the place
    where trees which meet my needs can be described, I can go and get it myself.

    The plan is to copy the “Open Source” ideas of Linux and similar computer
    systems. All those who contribute material will be offered the results of my

    Michael Bell
    10 Cambridge Avenue
    Forest Hall
    Newcastle -upon – Tyne
    NE12 8AR
    United Kingdom +44 (0) 191 266 6435

  2. This is a serious project, and I really would like to hear from anybody who knows of interesting variations of cone or seed

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