To cork or not to cork

Well, I’m officially in a quandary. On the one hand, with the risk of TCA-induced (that’s 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a by-product of microbial activity) taint so high, there’s no reason except snobbishness for jettisoning natural cork for screw-tops and other ways of stopping wine bottles. On the other hand, as this article points out, producers are addressing quality concerns and cork is biodegradable, recyclable, and sustainably harvested from woodlands whose management over centuries has led to high levels of biodiversity. Pass the bottle.

Crop wild relatives underused

Are crop wild relatives (CWR) more trouble than they’re worth? There are certainly significant challenges involved in including them in breeding programmes, but you’d have thought that between the new molecular tools that are now out there, the greater numbers of CWR accessions in genebanks, and all the information about how useful CWRs can be, breeders would be falling over themselves to make those kinky inter-specific crosses. Well, according to a major review by our friends at Bioversity International (the outfit formerly known as the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute), the use of CWRs in breeding programmes has been steadily increasing in the past 20 years, but probably not as much as might have been expected. There’s been a number of papers recently on CWRs. This paper, also from Bioversity, looks at in situ conservation of CWR. Check out this for a discussion on the definition of the term, and, from some of the same people, there’s this overview of conservation and use of CWR, using a specific example. Here’s an example of conservation assessment and priority-setting for the wild relatives of the peanut. For a discussion of the possible effects of climate change on these species, see this.

Amazing maize stories

Apparently, maize recovered from ancient burials in NW Argentina is genetically “almost identical” (whatever that means!) to the landraces still being grown in the area. I wonder if it was prepared in the same way too. This piece in the Washington Post certainly shows that maize culinary traditions are strong, and can go back a long way.

Rapid agrobiodiversity surveys

This SciDevNet piece led me to this Nature article on the theory and practice of the Rapid Biological Inventory, “a quick, intensive taxonomic expedition designed to identify areas of particular biological, geological and cultural significance before development and exploitation take hold.”

Using satellite images, maps and other data, biologists target promising areas and then work with local scientists and students to walk existing and newly cut trails, recording the species they encounter. (…) In parallel with these are social inventories — surveys of the organisational structure of local communities and how they use the forest. The teams work with indigenous groups, government and local conservation organisations to deepen their understanding of the value of the surveyed areas.

I think the concept was pioneered by Conservation International, under the name Rapid Assessment Program, or RAP, but as far as I can see it hasn’t been applied to agricultural biodiversity, at least not explicitly. Seems to me one could come up with a pretty good “rapid agrodiversity assessment” methodology based on standard crop descriptors combined with traditional knowledge, wrapped up in a participatory rural appraisal (PRA) approach. Maybe someone already has?

British landraces

Maria Scholten has written to us with some interesting websites about British landraces. She says that as Brussels prepares a new directive on the conservation of agricultural landraces, it is important to have some idea about the landraces that still survive even in countries like the UK with a highly industrialized agriculture, and the efforts underway to conserve them.

  1. a sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) landrace from the eighteenth century and one grown, tested and promoted by sainfoin enthusiast Robin Hill
  2. an English native red clover landrace marketed by a local British seed company
  3. a barley, probably introduced by the Vikings, being researched for marketing potential on Orkney
  4. a group of organic growers on Shetland working to maintain Shetland “aets” and bere barley, the historical cereals of Shetland

Thanks, Maria!