Even sixty-six years after his death, Nicolai Vavilov (1887-1943), would still be the best candidate to head the department of agriculture for he had the rare ability to see through the chaos and into the future. He predicted that to feed the worlds hungry, it is essential to tap into the vast reservoir of crop biodiversity.
Vavilov was a Russian botanist who directed the world’s most extensive seed collection of cultivated plants to decipher the origins of agriculture. He wanted to understand how ancient man developed agriculture in order to build upon these techniques in modern day plant breeding. Using his botanical collection, he was able to differentiate between areas of high biodiversity and other areas of relative impoverishment. Under his rationale, crops portraying relatively high levels of genetic differences indicate that these plants had enough time to mutate over time to form many varieties. By deduction, Vavilov recognized that the area of highest biodiversity for a given crop was also its origin and an important source of genetic material for plant breeding. By this method he saw that chili peppers did not originate from India like many believed but are indigenous to central and South America. Likewise, he discovered that the ubiquitous tomato, so intrinsic to Italian cuisine was also brought by the Portuguese and Spaniards from the New World.
Vavilov’s idea to use genetic variability in food crops to increase and stabilize agricultural harvests is as relevant today as ever. The world relies heavily on a few key species for most of its food and this can cause instability and famine. Climate change, biological susceptibilities and even political upheavals can all cause great fluctuation in agricultural harvest. According to Prof. Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in London, the world’s primary food comes from a dozen species yet there are 30,000 edible plants which exist in the world. It takes only one pathogen to wipe out an entire crop as occurred in Ireland between the years of 1845-1855. The population relied solely on potatoes as their main source of food and with its decimation the population plummeted by 25 percent.
Prof. Yossef Mizrahi of Ben Gurion Univesity of the Negev in Israel has recognized the need to implement change in agricultural practices through changes in government policy. According to Prof. Mizrahi, most of the world’s edible plants go unnoticed because it is difficult to introduce them on a large scale because of the lack of government funding. Money is poured into researching the most common crops such as wheat and barley but there is no corresponding investment in rarer crops. Furthermore, there is also no infrastructure stimulate farmers to try new species. Existing laws also hamper the ability to introduce new animal species into the country, such as camel to be used for milk.
What kind of plants should be introduced from the thousands available? These crops should be compatible to the regional climate, be naturally resistant to pathogens and economical feasible. Often, indigenous plants are the ones most compatible with a region’s local climate and growing conditions. Prof. Mizrahi, for example, has advocated for years that the best crops to be grown in an arid country like Israel are not citrus and other fruit trees, but cacti, such as prickly pear (Cactus Opuntia) which needs little water and grows well in harsh desert conditions. Cacti have the advantage of stopping desertification as well as being an important food in arid countries such as Africa and Israel without harming the fragile ecological balance. This is considered sustainable agriculture, a method which tries to create economic feasible farming practices without sacrificing long term ecological conservation.
Recently food biodiversity has been given more attention from the media and while researching for this article I found several news articles written on the subject. There are also many universities and college throughout the United States that have introduced programs to study sustainable agriculture such as that found in Alfred State University of New York and now local governments have been trying to find incentives to continue in this direction. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture for example is giving out grants to support sustainable agriculture research projects. Hopefully this will increase public awareness and create stimulus to begin new projects to broaden food security and long term ecological health. Perhaps within a few years, bread fruit, Ethiopian tef, niger seeds and camel milk will all be common supermarket items.
***What happened to Nicolai Vavilov?
Unfortunately Vavilov had enemies who thought he was too powerful, and instead of finding scientific glory he was thrown into a Siberian jail and left to die. An opportunistic pseudo scientist named Lycenco, the head of the Ministry of Agriculture, replaced him. Truly the evil scheming scientist, he took advantage of the ignorance of his political leaders and their zeal for an easy solution to feed the masses. He blamed Vavilov for his own failed promises of producing new breeds of high yielding crops in a single year. Vavilov regained the integrity of his name only after his death with the help of those loyal to him. During World War II’s siege of Leningrad, the curators of the botanical collections, faithful to Vavilov, died of starvation surrounded by potatoes, seeds, tuburs and nuts, sacrificing themselves to preserve Vavilov’s legacy for future generations.