It started with a seed 20 years ago

As the International Plant Treaty celebrates its 20th birthday, here’s a nice interview with the current Secretary, Kent Nnadozie. Want a quick summary of the Treaty’s achievements? Kent has you covered:

To begin with, we have been able to set up fully functional mechanisms out of the text of the Treaty. We have established a multilateral system for access and benefit-sharing, which is like the global pool of genetic material and seeds that facilitates the breeding of new varieties of crops, and it has enabled over 6.9 million transfers of plant genetic material, supporting global agricultural research. Another achievement is that it is the first international agreement that formally recognized farmers’ rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds so that farmers’ contributions over thousands of years are fully recognized. The Treaty also strengthens the capacity of farmers and local communities, encouraging their participation in national decision-making. The other achievement deals with the funding strategy, which was established under the Treaty and has enabled the mobilization of enormous amounts of funds and resources to further support farmers in developing countries but also to support gene banks, where this material has been conserved. The Treaty, which currently has 150 Contracting Parties plus the European Union, has also been fundamental in facilitating international cooperation because it provides the platform for governments and other stakeholders to come together to negotiate and set policies for the global governance of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Additionally, it was the adoption of the Treaty that gave Norway the impetus to invest in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and, since then, has continued to support the Treaty, including through yearly contributions to the Benefit-sharing Fund, based on the value of total annual seed sales in Norway.

We have the data on superfoods – now what?

Jeremy tackles superfood in his latest newsletter. Do subscribe.

The ultimate expression of food as medicine is the search for active ingredients. Why go to the bother of eating broccoli or Brussels sprouts if you can swallow a pill of glucosinolates and get all that cancer-fighting power directly? I’ve even seen arguments that beneficial phytochemicals be purified from wild plants and somehow incorporated into the batter for chicken nuggets. So I’ve long been skeptical of an effort launched a while ago to compile a periodic table of food, described as an initiative “for generating biomolecular knowledge of edible diversity”. I didn’t link to the original paper because it was behind a paywall but now that two of the 56 authors have written a kind of press release I’m happier to do so.

Superfood – Unveiling the “Dark Matter” of Food, Diets and Biodiversity explains how little we know about the molecular composition of the vast majority of edible plants, and that to learn more will take “a united scientific movement, larger than the human genome project”. Such a movement, in turn, calls for standardised tools, data and training to ensure that results are comparable.

What have we learned from the tools, data and training, so far? As an example, the authors offer

Broccoli, which achieved “superfood” status several years ago for its antioxidants and its connections to gut health, has over 900 biomolecules not found in other green vegetables.

And? Does that mean the broccoli pill will need more than glucosinolates, which are also present in many other brassicas? What does it mean, other than that we need more research?

There are larger goals. One, I think, is to somehow reverse the current trend for people in the West to fall upon the latest superfood with a cry of glee until the next one comes along, without giving anything back to the indigenous cultures that discovered and preserved the superfood. Calling for capacity-strengthening, the authors say “it is time to start opening the black box of food and create more nourishing food systems for everyone”. M’kay.

Another goal, I think, is to ensure that government dietary guidelines are based on more complete knowledge, despite the fact that even now it is more or less impossible to get people to follow those guidelines. Will having more molecular data help?

Full disclosure: I used to work for one of the organisations behind the Periodic Table of Food Initiative and I count many of the researchers as friends. I still don’t see the point, but please check out the gorgeous PTFI website for yourself and let me know why I am wrong.

Brainfood: UK NUS, German labelling, Indian diversity, Ghana fonio, Kenya veggies, Rwanda biofortified beans, Cassava WTP, Urochloa resources, Perennial flax

Nibbles: SPAM2020, Pullman genebank, Svalbard, Olive plague, Rice diversity, Vanilla threat, Gum rockrose, VACS demand, AI double, Food & climate change

  1. The latest version of the SPAM global crop area distribution model is out. You can play with it here.
  2. Some bullet points on the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System outpost in Pullman.
  3. Yes, the above references Svalbard, as does this piece on Spanish tomatoes.
  4. Pity we can’t put olives in Svalbard, but there’s a another way to protect olive diversity.
  5. A breakdown of rice colour diversity. A lot of this stuff will be in Svalbard, with any luck.
  6. Vanilla will also need attention.
  7. But gum rockrose seems to be taken care of, at least in Bulgaria. It’s what you make Holy Chrism with.
  8. So there’s bound to be demand for it, at least in some quarters. Unlike for other opportunity/orphan/neglected crops, but GAIN is on it.
  9. And if all else fails there’s always AI, be it to fight pests and diseases or find cool plants out in the jungle.
  10. Why does all this matter? Because of the climate F-word.

Brainfood: Biodiversity nexus, Nutrition interventions, European land suitability, Beyond yield, Cover crops, CWR breeding, Rice gaps, Banana info system