Eat this maize podcast

Jeremy’s latest podcast is out, and it’s a doozie. Plus it saves me adding it to the next Brainfood, which is coming soon, don’t worry people.

Modern maize has long been a puzzle. Unlike other domesticated grasses, there didn’t seem to be any wild species that looked like the modern cereal and from which farmers could have selected better versions. For a long time, botanists weren’t even sure which continent maize was from. That seemed to be settled with the discovery in lowland Mexico of teosinte, a wild and weedy relative of maize. But there was a problem. A lot of the later genetic work to understand the transformation of teosinte into maize found remnants of different types of teosinte.

Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra and his colleagues have sorted out the story, which is now more complicated, better understood, and offers some hope for future maize breeding. Their paper was published last week in Science.

Nibbles: USDA germplasm plan, Millet CoP, Seed system resources, Kenyan sorghum Scottish crab apples, Heirloom maize, Yak cheese, Indian mangoes

  1. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a new National Strategic Germplasm and Cultivar Collection Assessment and Utilization Plan. Quite the tour de force. Now to get it funded.
  2. Yes, there’s now a community of practice on millets. Joined!
  3. The Seed System Lab at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences has lots of interesting resources on its new website.
  4. The latest on the Kenyan genebank’s sorghum work.
  5. Why wouldn’t Scotland have a crab apple genebank?
  6. Why Jimmy Red maize is worth saving, despite its faults.
  7. Yak cheese? Yes, please.
  8. And nice pics of Indian mangoes to close.

Reasons to be cheerful

Just noticed I haven’t posted in over three weeks. Sorry about that. But there is a good reason: work.

First there was the Global Crop Diversity Summit in Berlin.

Then there was the 10th Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. The Summit communique was presented to delegates, who welcomed its call for more support to genebanks.

Then there was the Phase 2 meeting of the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) in New York. That vision will arguably depend on the sort of access to genetic diversity that genebanks provide and the Treaty facilitates.

And now of course there is COP28 in Dubai, with its particular focus on the need for transforming agrifood systems.

Which takes us back to the Summit and its call that we need to empower genebanks if that transformation is going to work. And to the Treaty. And indeed to VACS and its focus on less-known crops.

And actually there has been good news already in Dubai bringing all those strands together. Check out the last item on this list of projects that will be supported by Norway.

But don’t worry, normal service will be renewed here soon.

Liberating heirlooms

Jeremy’s latest Eat This Newsletter has a dissection of the recent piece on heirlooms from The Guardian that we Nibbled a couple of days back. Plus a whole bunch of other interesting stuff, from food riots to Peruvian limes. Read it!

Intellectual property rights and heirloom seed savers are doing their best to keep things just the way they are, but is that a good thing? The heirlooms of today were created to meet the needs of yesterday, and that’s fine for people who still have those needs. But where are the breeders meeting the needs of non-industrial growers today? They are around, of course, but Chris Smith, writing in The Guardian, thinks seedsavers should stop obsessing over heirloom seeds and let plants change.

He definitely has a point. Laser-like focus on variety preservation does block the possibility of adaptive change to new circumstances. But anyone who know how to keep an open-pollinated variety pure already knows enough to cultivate more diversity and select from that, if they choose to. A farmer like Chris Smith has the land and the inclination to do both, and it doesn’t seem to stop the seed enterprises with which he is associated from offering presumably true-to-type heirloom varieties. I suppose what I am saying is to let a thousand flowers bloom. Preserve the old varieties and use them, with perhaps a pinch of commercial and genebank varieties in the mix, to create and select tomorrow’s heirlooms.