Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Future foods

How We Can Tame Overlooked Wild Plants to Feed the World

BY HILLARY ROSNER
WIRED 06.24.14

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.

(Continued here.)

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