Farmers save seeds shock

A farm in Massachusetts, US, has launched its own seed bank. Red Gate Farm Seed Bank aims to:

  • provide community access to quality, local seeds.
  • preserve local, heritage and heirloom seed varieties.
  • promote seed saving.
  • develop and distribute seeds that are optimum for our unique New England soils and climate.
  • collect the social histories of our local seeds.

And very worthy that is too. You can do that sort of thing in nasty quasi-dictatorial America. In freedom-loving, liberal ol’ Yurp it would be illegal.

via Grist, which adds that “with a climate on the fritz, indigenous seeds will likely play an increasingly important role in sustaining local agriculture”. Except, of course, that it won’t be indigenous seeds that will support local agriculture. It’ll be agricultural biodiversity from far away, adapted to a different climate.

Fruit genebank follow-up

We’ve been trying to keep an eye on the threat to the fruit tree genebank built up by the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Programme (HARP) in Jharkhand State, India, with limited success.

A quick recap: State parliamentarians plan to force HARP off its land and bulldoze the field genebank of more than 5000 trees, to build themselves fancy bungalows.

The Indian press has mostly been concerned with the whiff of corruption. A couple of days after the original report, the chief Minister of Jharkhand was busy denying that any decision had been taken over the land; the Indian Express quoted documents that suggested otherwise. A week later, the paper had more documents, claiming that the HARP land was worth about 25,000 times more than some previous land that had been earmarked for the bungalows but rejected by the parliamentarians. The research station was more or less ignored, save for a claim by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, in a letter to Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda, that scientists had been threatened, an incident Pawar described as “very sad” and “objectionable”.

Then came a bombshell, a leaked email from Cary Fowler, the Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, to the Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, HARP’s parent organisation, who serves on the Board of the Trust.1 According to the Indian Express, Fowler asked informally whether “something can be done”.

And this, for us, is the nub of the matter.

Politicians enriching themselves by taking advantage of their position is business as usual, and a matter for the local electorate. And believing that fancy bungalows are more valuable than a collection of tropical fruit diversity is further confirmation that these politicians are nothing out of the ordinary.

As far as I’m concerned, they can have their land and their bungalows. That’s between them, their voters and the local constabulary.

What I want to know is: what are the plans for the collection? It takes time to graft trees and to strike cuttings, if, indeed, those are feasible options. It takes time to find new land. Is there time? Or, as the headlines insinuate, are the bulldozers already moving in on the land?2

  1. Extensive investigations have failed to uncover any evidence that the leak emanated from the Trust. []
  2. There seems to be one local blogger who might be able to dig up answers, but no way of contacting him. So if you see this, Ashok K.Jha or Mithila Darpan, get in touch with us. []

Reinventing the wheel

More evidence of multiple independent domestication events. Previous work has shown such a pattern for rice in Asia and cucurbits in the America. Now it’s the turn of barley in Eurasia. A paper just out1 looked at both sequences of 5 genes and also morphological traits in a geographically widespread set of 250-odd landraces.2

The results suggest that the crop was first domesticated 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, from whence it spread to Europe, North Africa and Ethiopia (the material from Ethiopia was somewhat distinct, as has already been documented). However, there was apparently also a second domestication, much later. It occurred in the region encompassing southern Central Asia, the eastern Iranian plataeau and the edge of the Indian subcontinent, and it is material from here that spread eastward starting maybe 2,500 years ago, possibly along the Silk Road, to give rise to the barleys of India, the Himalayas and China.

This is not an unusual pattern in Eurasian agricultural biodiversity. Sheep and cattle DNA data also show “two highly divergent lineages that distinguish European and Asian types, indicating a second independent evolution of these livestock species outside the Near East.” Not unusual, but somewhat puzzling. As the barley authors conclude:

It remains unclear why different cultures sought to re-invent these domesticated species several times rather than simply obtain them through diffusion from other farming societies.

The authors of the barley study speculate that the second domestication happened either because of the transmission of knowledge, or as an independent innovation. I find the second option a bit hard to take. Could it be that the results of the first domestication effort were just not adapted to conditions outside the Fertile Crescent, or there was a barrier to their diffusion? Or maybe it was just a matter of pride for the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau to have their own agrobiodiversity?

  1. Saisho, Daisuke, Purugganan, Michael. (2007) Molecular phylogeography of domesticated barley traces expansion of agriculture in the Old World. Genetics. []
  2. From a Japanese university genebank. []

Arctic seed monkeys in publicity storm

Some people have all the fun. Reporter Louise Roug, of the Los Angeles Times, has clearly had a blast writing a major feature on the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s “doomsday vault” on Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle. She has it all: glaciers and frozen wilderness; airlocks, steel-reinforced doors and a video-monitoring system; more aggressive farming methods, environmental degradation and changing weather patterns; quotes from senior science coordinators with the Trust.

She also, this being modern journalism, has contrary opinions. To provide balance. So the director of one NGO is reported as saying that the Arctic seed vault “tends to divert attention, energy and money away from what we consider as much more urgent and sustainable efforts to save biodiversity on the farm”.

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