Wild relatives may not be so crazy after all

by Madison Brown

Recently, I came across an article pertaining to a study done on the use of ‘Crop Wild Relatives.’ This study analyzed the wild relatives of crops widely used across the globe to analyze qualities such as drought-tolerance and heat resistance, amongst other more desirable traits plant breeders seek out as our climactic patterns continue to become less and less predictable.

Climatologists and weather forecasters are already calling for another El Nino event to begin this fall. El Nino typically brings weather extremes such as abnormally rainy, warm winters and dry summers. In the world of food production, this means crops struggle to survive respective seasons. For consumers, this can lead to shortages of their favorite fruits and vegetables and in the worst-case grains and other staple crops. In turn, this leads to shortages of livestock feed. These threats result in plant breeders and researchers to investigate ‘wild’ relatives to these crops that in their current form may have lost the ability to adapt.

Staple crops such as rice, barley, chickpea and sunflowers were all analyzed throughout said study. The crops analyzed in this study are major sources of carbohydrates, plant-based protein (legumes) as well as oils and are cultivated consistently throughout the world. By providing information pertaining to commonly cultivated crops, their ‘cousins’ so to speak can be analyzed to provide further understanding of said crops genetics and how the variability can provide both good and bad references of its behavior and survival in the future, or potential improvements to current cultivars. It seems the overall goal here is to increase biodiversity. However, this study left-out major oil crops such as soybeans and corn, which are responsible for ethanol, bio-diesel and other petroleum alternatives that continue to increase in utilization every year.

This article and the information it presented is compelling because our team has been applying these same principles in a process to domesticate Pongamia Pinnata, a native to India and Australia and a wild, tropical relative to legumes we consume and utilize in industrial processes every day. Native to the tropics, Pongamia is naturally drought and tolerant to most temperature and weather extremes. Considering current predictions of our climate and weather patterns for the future, Pongamia seems to fit the bill as a “Wild Relative” for future oilseed crop production.

pods 1

However, Pongamia is vastly different in that it is a tree crop, thus providing other major environmental benefits to our planet. One benefit is carbon sequestration as all trees consume significantly larger amounts of CO2 to complete photosynthesis. In addition, Pongamia is a legume – meaning it “fixes” its own nitrogen through a symbiotic process involving tiny organisms living in the soil. These organisms are called Rhizobia and they participate in a symbiotic relationship with their host by feeding on photosynthates (carbohydrates and sugars provided by photosynthesis), whilst providing nitrogen to their host. Nitrogen also happens to be the most limiting nutrient to plant growth.  With these characteristics, Pongamia can provide us with a clean, forward-thinking alternative to soybeans and other oilseed crops.

Overall, it is both refreshing and exciting to learn other scientists and organizations are performing similar research to ours, on the same path to increasing sustainability and biodiversity on this beautiful planet we call home.

The 99%

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.

wheatBut, 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.factory

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.