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Visions of a sustainable food future

Colin Khoury, Crop Diversity Specialist

@ColinKhoury

“Crop wild relatives and ancient, barely domesticated crop varieties hold the secrets to breeding crops of the future”

The future of food: take a walk on the wild side

I think the future is going to be a lot wilder and weedier. That’s a good thing.

That’s because the majority of our food is grown by converting the enormous complexities of wild landscapes into more simplified, controllable, agricultural ones. Farmers do this when they cultivate the soil, remove weeds, apply pesticides, and plant crops that their families eat or that they can sell in the market. This “culture” of agriculture is how we grow more food than ever before.

But the costs are many: soil erosion and losses of soil fertility, declines in pollinators, pesticide toxicity, fertilizer pollution, and greater vulnerability of crops to pests and diseases. On top of this is climate change, which makes growing food increasingly unreliable.

The future of food is, therefore, all about how we can continue to grow lots of it, while preventing, eliminating, or even reversing the environmental and social costs of cultivation. It’s about keeping the gains we’ve made through our agricultural practices, machines, chemicals, and seeds, while halting the destruction of biodiversity and soils. It’s about finding a better balance between the domesticated and the wild.

How are we going to do this? By improving our farming practices so that we disturb the soil as little as possible, so that the complexities of life underground can creep back in. By becoming much more judicious in the use of chemicals, so that crops can be productive on farms full of worms, bees, moths, and birds. By breeding crops to be resistant to pests and diseases, and productive under more stressful conditions. And by expanding our palettes to include more nutritious foods that grow easily where they are produced.

Wildness and weediness will be key to our success. Crop wild relatives and ancient, barely domesticated crop varieties hold the secrets to breeding crops of the future. As farmers struggle with climate change and land degradation, scientists will increasingly look to these plants for help. Some might be resilient to heat or drought; others might tolerate saline soils. Weeds and wild plants are a genetic safety net for the world’s food supply.

Many of them still exist in small garden plots and in the forests, shrublands, and deserts of the world, particularly in the tropics. But they are facing a host of threats, from urbanization, pollution, the expansion of agriculture, and even war.

The good news is that we’re coming to appreciate wildness, perhaps just in time. Fully conserving it – both in natural habitats and genebanks, where it’s accessible to plant breeders – is the next step. Making sure this wildness is truly accessible to the global community, through agreements such at the Plant Treaty, is also vital. Finally, reinvesting in research, not only to safeguard these resources, but also to better understand them, share this knowledge, and work with it so that it is useful to farmers around the world, is crucial to our “re-wilding.”

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