Wired‘s Hillary Rosner describes intriguing efforts by some scientists to produce wholly new food crops, using promising plants from the wild and breeding them into more useful forms.
A hand-painted wooden sign marks the entrance to Steven Cannon’s community garden, tucked between a sidewalk and some train tracks in Ames, Iowa. It depicts the iconic image of a seedling poking from a mound of dirt. At the far end of the garden, Cannon, a tall and reedy geneticist for the US Department of Agriculture, digs into the soil with a shovel and then his bare hands, pulling up fistfuls of lumpy roots. Strip the scene to its essence—ignore the cars driving past and the power lines strung overhead—and you could be watching a Neolithic farmer. They collected seeds from wild plants, buried them near their homes, and harvested the crop, hoping it would be bigger and better than the last one. That simple act—agriculture—came to define us as a species.
Cannon isn’t trying to re-create the past, though. He’s inventing the future. On this fall afternoon, his team is harvesting tubers that resemble dark-skinned fingerling potatoes. They’re called Apios americana, the potato bean—a legume endemic to North America. Native Americans gathered them and may even have served them at the first Thanksgiving. European settlers found them thriving in their cranberry bogs—places with low light, few nutrients, and bad soil. But they didn’t bother domesticating them into an agricultural staple.
After a couple hours of labor, Cannon’s harvest is complete. A dozen rubber bowls overflow with dirt-crusted tubers. Still, he is disappointed. “We were hoping for a little better yield,” he says. “This is about average.” Average is fine if you’re just messing around in a kitchen garden. But Cannon is up to something far more essential. The potato bean is part of his plan for remaking our food supply from the ground up. He doesn’t want to just grow Apios. He wants to turn it into a new crop that could help feed the world.
We need new crops. Thousands of years of breeding and decades of genetic modification have made the crops we sow predictable, easy to harvest, and capable of feeding more than 9 billion people. But they are also vulnerable to disease, pests, and the whims of weather. That’s troubling, because global warming is bringing more disease, more pests, and more whimsical weather. On current trend lines, global wheat and soybean harvest yields could fall by nearly 30 percent by midcentury. Corn yields could drop by 7.5 percent. In the baking-hot European summer of 2003, plant growth fell by 30 percent. By 2050, that kind of summer will be the new normal. “Suppose the US breadbasket ends up with a climate like Texas,” Cannon said at a genetics meeting last year. “We need to look to species already adapted to extremes.”
The potato bean is one of those species. Versatile like a potato, protein-rich like a bean, with a flavor vaguely like a starchy peanut, Apios does well in both dry and soggy soils. And there are plenty of others like it. Roughly 18,000 species of legumes grow around the world. They’re packed with protein and help fertilize the soil. Yet people have domesticated fewer than 50, and commonly eat only half that many. Cannon has assembled a short list of additional candidates: marama beans, yehub nuts, lupine, and a bunch of other so-called orphan crops, wild edible plants that could change the face of agriculture if someone could just turn them into reliable crops.
The article goes into much more detail, providing among other things recipes.