Plant Breeding to Save the Future

For the first 10,000 years of agriculture, every farmer was a plant breeder. Though most would never have described themselves as such, by the simple and intuitive process of saving seeds from their best plants, farmers taught themselves how to breed plants — and they were incredibly good at it.Practically all of the crops that feed humanity today were gradually domesticated from wild plants and selectively improved year after year by people with no formal training and no deep knowledge of genetics. What they did have is an urgency born of the basic human will to survive. Better crops — more productive, more reliable, more resilient — meant a better chance at survival.

Today, with the twin specters of climate change and ecological collapse haunting our species, we face threats to survival unlike any our ancestors could imagine — but thankfully the situation is not yet hopeless. If we can revolutionize our agricultural system we may still have a chance to not only survive the changes we’ve wrought, but perhaps even reverse them. To survive, we will need more resilient crop plants that can withstand the extreme weather of our increasingly chaotic planet. To thrive, we will need to develop new perennial crops (and to better utilize existing perennial crops) in order to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and begin stabilizing the climate.

In other words, if there’s to be another 10,000 years of agriculture, many more of us need to start breeding plants.

I decided to become a farmer and plant breeder in my early 30s. Up to that point I had mainly worked in politics and organizing, though I always loved gardening and had a strong interest in heirloom seeds. I was working for a union in my native Philadelphia when a natural disaster in my own backyard changed everything for me. Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coast and left a path of destruction across the mid-Atlantic. Good friends of mine in Brooklyn quickly mobilized to form Occupy Sandy, an impromptu, grassroots storm recovery organization. In short order a group of us in Philadelphia began working as Occupy Sandy New Jersey. Much to my own surprise, within a few weeks I had quit my job and become a full time disaster relief organizer.

Occupy Sandy was shockingly effective. Though few of us had any experience in disaster relief, we knew how to work with people and we knew how to mobilize volunteers. We worked with churches and community organizations that already had strong connections in their neighborhoods. We used social media and conference calls to build new connections. We even hijacked Amazon’s online wedding registry system to get donors anywhere in the world to send exactly what was needed, where it was needed, as quickly and efficiently as possible. We worked fast and we worked hard.

I was still in the thick of this work when I took a break to attend a conference in Quebec. One of the speakers was author Eric Toensmeier, and the focus of his talk was “carbon farming and perennial industrial crops.” He discussed the importance of transitioning away from annual monoculture farming — typified by the GMO corn and soy rotation that predominates today’s agriculture — which is a huge source of carbon emissions. His proposed solution was to move toward perennial-centered polyculture farming, with existing perennials like fruit and nut trees interplanted with annual vegetables and grains, which should eventually be replaced by new and improved perennial crops, especially grains, oilseeds, and vegetables.

Toensmeier catalogued a wide range of perennial plants with great potential to become perennial crops: Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera) as a possible source of edible starch; Crambe species (like seakale) as a possible source of industrial oil; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) as a possible replacement for soybeans; hybrid chestnuts as a replacement for corn; and many more. Most of our staple crops are annuals not because domestication of perennial plants is impossible, but because breeding annuals is so much less time consuming. Many perennials with the potential to become productive crop plants take five or ten years (or many more) to reach maturity, so even just three generations of improvement might take thirty years instead of three. Yet the potential is real, as long as someone is working to fulfill it.

‘Tim Peters’ perennial wheat

photo courtesy Nate Kleinman
‘Tim Peters’ perennial wheat, a hybrid, survived four winters in New Jersey

The advantages of perennial wheat were obvious to the early researchers — perenniality means no need to till and replant each year, and longer roots mean less need for water and less soil erosion — but they are even more obvious now. Since the act of tilling releases immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and perennial plants take carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the soil, perennial wheat could become a significant weapon in the fight against climate change. If we can further manage a wholesale shift from annual-based agriculture to perennial-based agriculture, farming could quickly shift from being a major driver of climate change to being a major part of the solution to it.

In recent decades, plant scientists have made major strides toward the development of viable perennial wheat (or wheat-like plants). At Washington State University, Dr. Stephen Jones and colleagues have been focused on perennial wheat for over two decades. They recently introduced a perennial wheat hybrid called ‘Salish Blue,’ which is probably the most promising wheat-wheatgrass hybrid yet. The Land Institute in Kansas — which was started by Wes Jackson in the 1970s with the goal of preserving topsoil in the Midwest — largely abandoned efforts at creating perennial wheat through hybridization with wild perennial relatives, but instead has focused on basic domestication of those perennial relatives. Through intense selection for the largest seeds, they have turned intermediate wheatgrass into a new perennial grain called Kernza (a trademarked name), which is in the early stages of commercialization, even as they continue to improve it. The Land Institute is also working on domesticating perennial sunflower relatives as oilseed crops, and breeding hybrid sorghums as perennial grain crops, among other programs.

As I sat there in Quebec listening to Toensmeier talk about the challenges of developing perennial wheat and of the many missed opportunities over the past century, I had a lightbulb moment: why not apply the same crowdsourcing, grassroots ethos of Occupy Sandy to the problem of revolutionizing agriculture? I figured if a rag-tag group of inexperienced millennials could mobilize 60,000 volunteers on less than a shoestring budget, anything is possible. Since much of plant breeding is essentially looking for a needle in a haystack, it only makes sense to have as many people looking as possible. In that moment, I realized that I could either spend the rest of my life bouncing from disaster to disaster — for we know there will more and more disasters — helping to pick up the pieces, or I could refocus my life toward doing something to get at the root of the problem. The seed was planted that soon grew into the non-profit cooperative Experimental Farm Network (or EFN), which is now in its sixth year.

The mission of EFN is to facilitate collaboration on plant breeding and sustainable agriculture research, with a particular focus on developing new crops for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. Along with my co-founder Dusty Hinz and a small team of open source computer programmers, we built an online platform (www.ExperimentalFarmNetwork.org) that allows anyone to post a project, recruit volunteers, and stay in touch with their team. There are currently 21 projects using the site, including a perennial kale project led by Chris Homanics of Oregon, an upland (dry land) rice project led by Sylvia Davatz of Vermont, and — taking us full circle — a Chinese yam (Dioscorea polystacha) aerial tuber project from Eric Toensmeier himself.

The EFN site is free to use and open to all. It’s still not perfect, but it is getting there. At this point, the majority of projects on the site were put there by me. They involve a wide range of mainly perennials for crop development and improvement: sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), chinquapin chestnut (Castanea pumila), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Tartary buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum), monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), sword beans (Canavalia), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia), beach plums (Prunus maritima), maypop passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata), and Job’s tears or adlay grain (Coix lacryma-jobi var. ma-yuen).

While a few of these crops are annuals (Tartary buckwheat) or are commonly grown as annuals (sorghum, sword beans, and Job’s tears), most of them are long-lived perennials. Of those, only the maypop passionfruit reaches maturity in less than three years. Monkey puzzles (a nut-bearing Chilean conifer) can take three decades to reach bearing age — but after that might produce food for another thousand years. Projects like these must therefore extend well beyond the life-time of the researcher who initiates them. They may not reach fruition for many generations — which is why building a decentralized, open organizing structure was so important to us with EFN.

You may be asking yourself, “Sure, this all sounds interesting. But who pays for it?” Indeed, plant breeding is not cheap. At a minimum it takes land, labor, equipment, and lots of time. It also takes access to seeds and other propagative material. Since our earliest discussions, EFN has operated under the assumption that people would be willing to give of themselves for a project as important as this one. We’re thankful that our faith in humanity has thus far proved justified. Dusty and I began looking for land in 2013, intending to use it for our own research projects and rare seed grow-outs, and in early 2014 we sealed a handshake agreement to begin farming a beautiful patch of land on a small family farm in rural southern New Jersey. The owners — Sandy and Chris Deitrich — welcomed us into their lives and have still never charged us rent.

EFN soon achieved 501(c)(3) non-profit status and formed an all-volunteer Board of Directors (featuring some truly impressive plant professionals including Kirtrina Baxter of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, Sally McCabe of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and legendary seed-saver William Woys Weaver of the Roughwood Seed Collection). We determined early on that we did not want to become dependent on wealthy donors or foundations — though we certainly welcome their support — and so we decided to create a small-scale seed company inside EFN to fund our non-profit work.

Since Dusty and I were prepared to put everything we had into EFN, and Sandy and Chris were generously offering us use of their farm, we had land and labor covered. Chris turned over a piece of their field for us, and our friend David Siller brought over his BCS walk-behind tractor to help prepare some beds. After buying one solar panel to run a small pump at the Deitrichs’ pond and installing a simple drip irrigation system in the field, we were up and running. Most of the work those first couple years was done by hand, so our equipment costs were minimal. We did eventually launch a crowdfunding effort that raised about $10,000, and we used most of that money to buy our own BCS.

But what about the seeds? Believe it or not, they were actually the easiest part.

Years before EFN, while still living in the town where I grew up — Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia — I started seeking out heirloom seeds with a historical connection to the region. My garden was filled with strange plants. I became so passionate about seed saving that when I interviewed for what would become one of my last “real jobs” (as a legislative assistant to a state representative), I negotiated one day off each week for hand-pollinating my corn. I had grown some rare corn varieties the year before, and I was eagerly anticipating growing two very exciting varieties which I had just received: ‘Puhwem’ and ‘Sehsapsing’, the white and blue flour corns of the Lenape people.

I had spent years trying to access what I thought then were the last remaining heirloom corns of the original inhabitants of the Delaware Valley (I have since learned that there are a few more). I found a man in Ohio who had listed Sehsapsing in an old Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook and wrote to him for a small packet. Months later he sent me some different seeds along with an apology for running out of Sehsapsing and a suggestion that I check with the USDA. That suggestion would prove to be pivotal.

At that point I knew only vaguely that the USDA preserved seeds. I did some online sleuthing and soon learned about the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). Then I found the government’s web portal for requesting seeds, the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), run by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). (Plant germplasm, for those unfamiliar with the term, means any living tissue from which new plants can be grown, including seeds, bulbs, tubers, cuttings, etc.) The mandate of the NPGS is to acquire, conserve, evaluate, characterize, document, and distribute germplasm of crops and crop wild relatives. Their collection includes crops for food, fiber, animal feed, industrial and medicinal purposes, and landscape and ornamental uses. A huge part of their mission is to freely distribute germplasm to anyone requesting it, as long as they have a legitimate “research, educational, or breeding purpose.”

My first search on the GRIN website (www.ars-grin.gov) was for Sehsapsing corn, and it came up right away. The listing also called it ‘Oklahoma Delaware Blue’, its common English name, and detailed its history of having been brought by a Lenape woman named Sarah Wilson Thompson from the Delaware Valley to the Delaware Reservation in Oklahoma. There was a button on the screen that said “Request this Germplasm” (following an update to the site it now says “Add to Order”), and it was added to a “Shopping Cart,” as if I was buying from an online store. Next I found the Puhwem, or Oklahoma Delaware White, and added it to my list. On a whim, I typed in “Jenkintown” and found that an important “sugar pear” called ‘Tyson’, popular in the 1800s and still available commercially, had been found in 1794 just a few miles from where I was then sitting, in a hedgerow on the farm of Jonathan Tyson. I clicked “Request this Germplasm” and soon realized I would have to try my hand at grafting.

I typed in the name of a small town where I’d spent a few weeks in the northern part of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and sure enough there were some corn varieties from that town available. I found a interesting pear from Philadelphia (‘Petre’), a goji berry from Hokkaido, a pumpkin from Nepal, a double-flowered thimbleberry from Oregon, a black carrot from Rajasthan, a guanabana from Peru, a sunchoke from Maine, some teosinte (ancestral corn) from Mexico and Nicaragua, and much more. I wrote out the required paragraph explaining my intended use of the material — education through a community-based gardening project — and requested 37 different “accessions.” Weeks later I was holding them in my hands, and soon after that planting them in the ground.

That was 8 years ago. Since then I’ve requested and received many hundreds of accessions from the government: a small-bulbed garlic from Syria, a sour-fleshed melon from the Maldives, a wild strawberry from Maine with fruit that kills certain lung cancer cells (at least in vitro), a super-early eggplant from China, dozens of grains from around the world, various species of Crambe (including the elusive Tartar Bread Plant, or Crambe tataria), hops, basil, rice, soybeans, soybean wild relatives, squash, peppers, tomatoes, wild Galapagos tomatoes, and on and on. I’ve probably spent months of my life poring over the GRIN database, and every time I visit the site I learn something new.

Gagon cuke

photo courtesy Nate Kleinman
‘Gagon’ cucumber from Bhutan

The seeds EFN has been sent by the government have provided the core of the EFN seed catalogue (which is available online at www.EFNSeeds.com). We have introduced to commerce some obscure varieties that have quickly become quite popular. The ‘Gagon’ cucumber from Bhutan — a Sikkim-type cucumber with fruit nearly two feet long covered in red-brown lizard-skin — is now grown from coast-to-coast. Hot pepper aficionados have fallen in love with the ‘Haskorea’ from Aleppo, Syria. And the South Sudanese sorghum variety known as ‘Coral’ — a wonderful multi-use variety with big beautiful purple grains and a sweet juicy stalk suited for molasses production — is now offered by at least four seed companies.

Those are just three examples, but they each point to why it’s so important to more people utilizing the NPGS collection. If we had not requested those seeds, they would still be sitting in a freezer at a USDA genebank somewhere. Instead, they’re circulating around the country and the world. As individual growers save their seeds and repeat the process each year, the varieties are now being adapted for a huge range of climates and the climatic extremes of today’s world.

Many of the accessions held by the USDA are considered “landraces.” A landrace is essentially an unimproved variety that has never been stabilized or standardized through plant breeding (a stable variety is called a “cultivar”). Landraces are generally connected to a particular geographic location (hence the name) and are maintained through traditional farming practices. Each of the farmers in the same valley in Turkey, say, might all grow the same type of wheat. Over time, after generations of selection, the wheat grown by farmers at one end of the valley might become quite different from that grown by farmers at the other end of the valley, due to unique microclimates, soil chemistry, pest pressure, and local selection criteria. Collectively, though each farmer’s seed might be slightly different from their neighbor’s, it would be safe to call those two populations two distinct landraces.

The most important characteristic of any landrace is its diversity. Since landraces have not been subject to intensive selection and the inbreeding that often accompanies it, they maintain a wide range of traits and characteristics. This not only makes them immensely valuable for plant breeders — indeed, most every modern crop variety began its life as a landrace — it also makes them valuable to certain types of farmers. Landraces are not well suited to large-scale industrial farming, which prizes uniformity above almost all other traits, but they are very well suited to small-scale organic or agroecological farming, which prize resilience above all else. I often urge growers in northern areas, who have difficulty growing okra, to try the ‘Kandahar Pendi’ land-race okra we sell (from seed we originally accessed through GRIN). Since southern Afghanistan is a place with a harsh and unforgiving climate, the diverse okra landrace collected in the market there (by USDA plant explorer E.E. Smith in 1954) has some very powerful genes. Some plants produce red pods, some green, some white. Some are fat, some skinny, some short, and some long. If a grower in northern Maine plants 20 seeds from a packet of ‘Kandahar Pendi’ seeds, they might not all be able to withstand the sometimes cold nights and rarely very hot days (most okra loves heat), but perhaps a few plants will. If those seeds are saved and grown the following year, and that process is repeated for a few years, very soon that grower has developed their own new landrace, adapted to their unique situation. That’s plant breeding — and it is easily within the reach of anyone who grows plants.

The NPGS collection is an invaluable resource for would-be plant breeders, but it is far from the only resource. Increasingly, small-scale seed companies — like EFN, Wild Garden Seeds, Adaptive Seeds, Truelove Seeds, Uprising Seeds, High Desert Seed, Hudson Valley Seed Company, Fruition Seeds, Sow True Seed, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Common Wealth Seeds, Joseph Lofthouse, and more — offer landraces and other unique and resilient varieties. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and Grassroots Seed Network facilitate sharing of rare varieties. And many traditional farmers and gardeners from Appalachia to Armenia and everywhere in between still maintain their own treasured heirloom seeds. They’re out there — but we need more folks to get out and start looking for them before it’s too late.

Industrial farming and corporate consolidation have resulted in a dramatic loss of plant varieties over the past century. As more and more farmers buy their seeds from fewer and fewer companies — and shift from open-pollinated varieties that they can save themselves to hybrids and GMOs that they cannot — the lack of biodiversity among our common crop plants becomes ever more dangerous. Given the terrifying nature of climate change, it’s pivotal that we work to preserve and expand crop biodiversity and that we do so with a strong sense of urgency.

The climate is changing rapidly. As the arctic permafrost thaws, the methane released threatens to quicken the pace of climate change even further. No one yet knows what the tipping points are, or can predict when we will cross them. It’s highly likely that the global temperature increase of the 20th century (about 1° F) will pale in comparison to the temperature rise in this 21st century. Already farmers have noticed yields decreasing in certain regions, with certain crops, and that will no doubt continue.

As just one example, southern New Jersey currently averages less than ten days per year with 100° temperatures. By the end of this century we might average over 45 days with such temperatures! In such a climate, certain crops (like currants and rhubarb) will probably not be able to survive. And disruptions to the polar vortex will likely bring some extremely frigid cold-snaps to winters at the same time, threatening the peach industry and even important long-time New Jersey staples like asparagus and grapes.

It’s impossible to predict how bad things will get, here or around the world, though all signs point to a very frightening future. But as long as we still have seeds and soil, rain and sun, we have what we need to make a difference.

If we’re to survive as a species, we need to start thinking of this moment in history as the calm before the storm. This is our chance to prepare. This is our time to adapt and breed the plants of the future. If we don’t seize the opportunity now, soon it will be too late.

We won’t get another chance.