Print options

April 24, 2013

Crops of the Past Make a Comeback

by Joe DeCapua

Farmers are among the first to feel the effects of climate change. For many in developing countries, the crops they relied on year after year no longer grow in abundance. As a result, farmers are not only looking for new crops to grow, but some old ones as well.


Climate change and food security are tightly linked. Rising global temperatures have brought frequent droughts in some regions or more floods in others. And there may be threats from new pests or plant diseases.

In response, farmers can attempt to grow crops that have been successful in other regions or countries, or they can look to their past.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust, in a sense, is a repository of the past. It collects, preserves and maintains the raw genetic material used in agriculture. Assistant Executive Director Paula Bramel says the trust is the only global organization dedicated to doing that.

“The environment is changing to the point where farmers can no longer maintain the seeds of the varieties that they always used. And that’s really a loss to everybody because that variety may have a trait that was really critical in the future. And if it’s not collected and saved it won’t be available. [In] a lot of Africa you see this happening.”

She said that it’s important that crop diversity be maintained because you never know when a crop will be needed.

“We also work to ensure that both crops as well as their wild relatives – those that are under threat – either due to the fact that their environment is degrading because of human activity or because of the changing climate – that those are collected and held in one of these gene banks so they’re available in the future,” she said.

The trust reports that, currently, “much of the world’s crop diversity is neither safely conserved, nor readily available to scientists or farmers.” It warns that “diversity is being lost and with it the biological basis of our food supply.”

Bramel said, “They’re basically held in trust for the world and they’re freely available to everyone. The only access that’s required is that you have to sign an agreement that acknowledges that they stay within the public domain. There’s an option for ensuring that if you were to develop something useful that some of that goes back in terms of benefit sharing to the farmers who developed those traits.”

Crops of the past may become the crops of the future. They’re called heirlooms.

“You see this rekindling of our historical ties to varieties in the case of heirlooms. So you see heirloom vegetables. You see all kinds of heirloom crops. You see it in apples. You see it in peaches, in lots of things, where people are stepping back and saying they want to rediscover that diversity that they’ve lost,” she said.

There had been a push toward less variety as farmers concentrated on – what were then – the most productive crops. Bramel said that’s changing.

“These farmers came to us when I was working in India and asked for these kinds of millets that they had grown before. They had given up growing them because they wanted to grow rice because they could make more money. But then they realized they couldn’t make as much money and they were very interested to have back what were their traditional foods – things they remembered. They want to be able to make the food that they had made in the past.”

The Global Crop Diversity Trust said seeds and plant material are stored in what it calls a fail-safe location –the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It’s on a remote Island halfway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole. The vault, it said, has been built to withstand both natural and man-made disasters.