Feeding the world might require undoing 10,000 years of plant domestication

The world is potentially headed into a serious food crisis, thanks to a combination of climate change, land degradation, and depletion of natural resources. And the solution to all this might mean taking plant species back to before their domestication.

That's why researchers are currently headed to the Middle East, in search of the wild versions of the crops that were first domesticated some 11 millennia ago. Some of humanity's most important crops date back to this first round of agricultural discovery, with wheat, barley, chickpea, pea, and lentils all originating in the region way back when. And while these domesticated crops have been invaluable in the massive growth of human civilization, our crops might not have the genetic hardiness necessary to survive the upcoming challenges.

Feeding the world might require undoing 10,000 years of plant domestication

On the other hand, all those plant species that humanity didn't domesticate - and there's thought to be hundreds of thousands of those - have had to survive without any human help, which means they carry the genes necessary to thrive in the toughest climates. The question now is whether we can find those crucial genes in the wild plants and find a way to introduce them to our vulnerable, tamed crops.

Time matters here, and new technologies might well help speed things up. Traditional cross-breeding of crops can take as long as twelve years before there's a widespread benefit, but genetic modification could do the job in two years. Researchers also know what to look for, zeroing in on desired traits by looking for environments that would create an evolutionary need for them. Genetic resource scientist Kenneth Street explains:

"For example, if we're looking for a drought resistant crop, we're going to look in low rainfall environments in which the seasonal rainfall is highly variable - this type of environment may have forced local populations to evolve towards physiological drought tolerance."

For much more on these efforts, check out the full article in COSMOS Magazine.