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By Lacey Gardner

M.L. Wells: Protecting our future with plant diversity

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“It all has to do with sex!”

By M. L. Wells, Master Gardener Volunteer, Cornell Cooperative Extension Allegany County

How do you create a deep orange carrot with extra vitamin A or a stringless green bean or a tomato semi-immune to blight or a super-sweet, sweet corn?

It all has to do with sex! Well, in plants we call it “sexual propagation”. Back in the day–way back 4 billion years ago, life was single celled and there was no party time. They reproduced by dividing in half, all descendants were just like the… Mom? Change came with mutations. Once Mom and Dad appeared on the scene it all changed. The offspring now had a mix of genetic material from both “parents.” Remember the blue and brown-eyed parents and the 10th grade speculators as to who was the dad?

At the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, wild species were used, seeds sorted and the best (early–large–tasty) saved. Over time genetic variety was lost, we were limiting the possibility of future variation. Variety in the gene pool is a hedge against disaster, think Irish potato famine. Well, that was partly monoculture, the twin problem of modern agriculture.

In the areas of origin (the Middle East) the hills and waste places still produce the wild ancestors and cousins of our domesticated wheat and barley. We need to preserve them in our seed banks. In their ancient diverse DNA may lie the answer to problems of the near future–global warming. We need crops like corn, wheat and soybeans which will grow at higher temperatures with less water. We need to develop plants which are “bug” resistant as so many of said bugs are now resistant to our sprays.

So, take a clue from Mother Nature, avoid monocultures, and preserve the ancestors in all their diversity. Remember the Irish in their relying on the potato, when it failed spectacularly due to blight, 25% of the people perished and approximately 25% to 35 % emigrated. Today there are less places to go to and less people who welcome the starving.  

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