Against the Grain
As the world’s national diets continue to converge with local foods disappearing Cuisitive will be featuring foods that are under threat and report on initiatives whose objective is to ensure that they are not lost forever. The three most important food crops in the world are rice, wheat and maize (corn) providing around 60% of the world’s plant derived food energy.
Maize, alone, meets a third of the calorie needs of Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. There has been, over many decades, a major decline in the number of varieties of these crops. For example, Mexico, where maize was first domesticated, has lost 80% of its varieties since the 1930s and in the USA 43% of maize is now derived from six inbred hybrids. Similarly, six varieties of wheat (Common wheat, Spelt, Durum, Emmer, Khorasan and Einkorn) account for the major part of world production. In contrast, the Germplasm Resources Centre in Norwich UK holds in its gene bank 1787 named varieties and 3685 landraces of bread wheat. Rice has undergone a similar process. In West Bengal, for example, there were once 5,000 varieties of rice; now only 150 varieties can be found in growers’ fields.
It is recognised by many international organisations and their sponsors that it is necessary to ensure the continued genetic diversity of these major crops to avoid vulnerability to diseases that could affect worldwide production.
Furthermore, for the individual consumer the diversity of taste on offer has and continues to be diminished.
Fortunately, there are, however, important initiatives that are addressing this issue.
At a national and global level seed banks have been established to store and make seeds available across the world. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway holds the seeds of 825,000 crops plants. Their mission is
‘…to rescue crop diversity in danger of disappearing forever. We pursue conservation and use of the wild cousins of our food crops. And we help develop a new generation of information technologies to make the world’s crop diversity searchable and accessible wherever it is needed.’
There are also a number of other seed banks and research institutes around the world, some of which hold important grain seed collections, for example:-
International Crops Research Centre, Patancheru, India
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Texcoco, Mexico
and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) based in Aleppo, Syria.
ICARDA is the site of a gene bank holding seed accessions from over 110 countries including traditional varieties, improved germplasms, and a unique set of wild crop relatives that include wheat, barley, oats, and other cereals. It includes more than 135,000 varieties of wheat, fava bean, lentil and chickpea crops, as well as the world’s most valuable barley collection. These seeds were collected over decades and most cannot be found growing in the fields anymore.
The International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines holds 127, 000 rice accessions and wild relatives from all over the world and has released more than 1,000 improved rice varieties in 78 countries since its establishment in 1960.
At the other end of the spectrum individuals around the world are pursuing initiatives to grow and utilise once common but now threatened varieties of grain seeds. In Sicily, Italy, Filippo Drago has rediscovered ancient wheat varieties such as Tumminia, Russello, Biancolilla, Perciasacchi, Bidì and Maiorca and now produces flour using his own mills.
The Oikawa Farm in Mikasa-shi, Hokkaido, is one of the few farms on the island of Hokkaido, Japan that grows eight-rowed maize and probably the only farm that cultivates Sapporo hachigyo maize, once a staple, as a commercial crop. Debal Deb based in the state of Orissa, India grows on an exchange and non- commercial basis 940 varieties of indigenous rice seeds including rare varieties such as Jugal and Sateen, which he has collected from small farmers during the last 17 years.