Look around you right now and you will see plant based products: the coffee in your mug, the cotton in your shirt, and the mustard stain on your pant leg. Plants are out there silently manufacturing a myriad of compounds and polymers that weave their way into every aspect of our lives.
The shear variety of food, medicine, personal care items, and industrial products made possible by harnessing and commercializing plants is mind boggling. Even more amazing is that this plethora of plant products is largely derived from only 250 domesticated plant species. To put that number in perspective, that is only 0.06% of the possible 390,000 estimated species of land plants that grow on earth. What about the other 99.94%? Is there an untapped reservoir of agronomic possibility lurking out there in the forest? Think what we could do by effectively harnessing just another 0.06% of it.
The fact that such a small percentage of the earth’s plant species have been domesticated tells me two things 1) domesticating new plant species has been difficult for most of human history 2) somewhere in that 99.94 % there must be at least a few leafy gems waiting to be mined by someone with the right equipment.
But, why bother with new species anyway? In the past, people have rarely found it necessary or economically beneficial to domesticate a totally new species, even when business as usual wasn’t working. Settlers moving to the American Midwest found that their European varieties of wheat didn’t grow too well in the new environment. Did they drop everything and domesticate local prickly pears? No, they developed new varieties of European wheat. I’ll take a wild guess and say that a big factor in that decision was that the demand for wheat was probably higher than for prickly pear.
So, why is today any different? What is the incentive to domesticate new crops, and will there be a market?
Since the agricultural expansion of the Midwest, some things have changed, and other things have stayed pretty much the same. Americans still ask themselves “How can I make the best use of my land?” and “Who am I going to sell my crop to?” The main difference is that the answers aren’t so simple anymore. Markets for agricultural products are larger and more complicated. To name just a few new demanding customers with specific needs: biodiesel refineries want cheap triglycerides, chemical manufacturers want feedstocks for specialty chemicals, the health foods industry wants better nutrition grown with lower environmental impact, and manufacturers of personal care items want oleochemicals in high volumes. Farmers want all this to happen using less inputs, and environmentalists want it to happen on less land with less environmental impact. It’s a big ask from our 250 domesticated plants, especially if it’s going to happen in a sustainable and profitable way for the farmer.
I believe that many of these new demands will require new crops to satisfy them. It is likely that some solutions will come from tweaking plants that we are already familiar with, but perhaps we will also need to look toward the 99.94%. Just as advancements in mining equipment has allowed miners to reach untapped ore, advances in agriculture and genetics will allow scientists and growers to explore the potential of a broader range of species for cultivation. For the past few years Terviva has been matching suitable growers with a new tree crop, pongamia, to help them add value to land where conventional crops, such as citrus, have failed. In just three years, pongamia went from being unheard of to relatively well known in a few key geographies.
Creating channels for the acceptance and utilization of new crops is not an easy task, but progress is being made. Once the domestication channels are in place, new crops will likely be easier to bring online. The rewards will include the preservation of an entrepreneurial agrarian lifestyle that America has come to know and love, as well as the production of higher value agricultural products using fewer inputs.