Backing up the world’s seed collection

reposted from

When we think of food security, we think of farming intensification and greater resource management. In Aleppo, the capital city in Syria, as rebels began looting and razing ancient artifacts this past spring, a new definition emerged. There, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) began developing its own emergency operation to safeguard their collection of 150,000 different seed populations (known as accessions) for wheat, barley, lentil and faba beans.

Why are genebanks important?
Rice, wheat and maize (corn) provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant derived calories. Maintaining and understanding genetic materials and their corresponding phenotypes is essential to food security on our planet. Through cross-breeding various wild species of seeds, scientists can develop new, more resilient seed accessions, better able to withstand environmental and pest stresses. As an example, in the 1970s, grassy stunt virus disease threatened almost all tropical rice varieties in Asia, and caused significant crop loss. Scientists were able to successfully cross-breed a resilient rice seed, oryza nivara – but only after testing 6,000 different accessions. Dr. Susan McCouch, Director of the McCouch Rice Lab at Cornell University explains in her article, Agriculture, Feeding the Future, that, “high-yielding seeds will be the cornerstone for sustainable, intensified food production”.

Management of agricultural biodiversity is not a new field. In fact, it was often undertaken at the household level to ensure survival. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist during the early 1900s, is often credited as the grandfather in conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources. Crop germplasm collection began during the 1970s, around that time there were 54 facilities dedicated to seed storage and maintenance. Currently, CGIAR oversees 11 regional collections, and researchers are working to “back up” seed traits to Svalbard, deemed a “doomsday vault” enclosed in a temperature controlled mountain in Norway.

The ICARDA headquarters have been in Syria since 1977, when the location was chosen because of ongoing civil wars at the time in Lebanon, the original location. Past civil wars have caused gene banks to disappear from Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands, and they can also be at risk to natural disasters like floods, or simply power outages. These organizations believe that a complete collection of seeds is necessary to support forward-looking agricultural programs, such as, Seeds for Needs, an effort to crowdsource information from 8,000 farmers to understand which varieties respond best in certain geographies.

At DivSeek Genesys, researchers are working to amass an online catalog of crop traits in an effort to improve crop diversity and resilience, globally. They believe that shared knowledge can improve crop performance and allow for faster response to disease and pest outbreaks – and in turn, reduce food insecurity and malnutrition.

Before the conflict escalated in Syria, the staff at the center duplicated 26,000 seed accessions and transported them to alternative storage facilities in Turkey and Lebanon. To date, the rebels involved in the takeover have continued to maintain the center to preserve the biodiversity within the region. While this could be a partial solution to more resilient agriculture, it poses even larger questions for the field of agricultural engineering.

ICT + Ag extension

Last week I attended a conference on information and communications technology (ICT) and the opportunity it presents to improve smallholder agriculture in the development context. Gathered vendors offered a variety of ideas surrounding mobile credit service access and educational ag extension programs, intended to increase overall crop yields, market productivity and profitability. By far the most interesting discussion centered around an afternoon panel on the future of ag extension and the value of human interaction and the element of trust in decision models.

Agricultural extension, or ag extension, consists of a chain of workers sharing and disseminating new scientific research and best practices on crop management, in an effort to bring about the best yields relative to annual forecasts. Ag extension workers regularly help smallholder farmers make important decisions on fertilizer application, seed selection, soil management, timing of planting, as well as post-harvest production issues, such as grain storage and price procurement. Advances in ICT connectivity, and access to data and stronger climate models, greatly expands the amount of knowledge ag extension workers and farmers have available through their mobile phones, allowing them to potentially better manage their network of farms. With the abundance of data and information available, it is important to understand the value that humans add in distilling relevant data sources and applications to provide sound agronomic advice.

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, highlighted the role of trust in this decision process, especially with the explosion of technological solutions on today’s market. He offered the example of both travel and insurance agents, and how their role had greatly diminished over the last decade as people have relied more heavily on data aggregating websites to make cost-effective purchasing decisions. Does the incremental value add of trust through human interaction reduce to marginal significance in smallholder agricultural development? A participant reminded us that a decade ago, most consumers were hesitant to store credit card information online.

Today, a large percentage of the population uses internet payments and savings mechanisms in good confidence that their money is well safeguarded. In Africa, and other developing regions, mobile money is one of the most important forms of currency.

Agriculture has been around for millennia, but still the notion of “precision agriculture” remains fraught with risks and uncertainties for a variety of reasons. While applications and big data can offer both farmers and ag extension workers patterns and algorithms to better contextualize past issues and inform decision making – humans remain an irreplaceable factor in the overall decision making process because of the importance of non-data elements in agricultural performance – the same way an entrusted doctor can offer more value than WebMD.  As time continues to build our confidence and trust in data driven decision modeling, when evaluating forecasting and crop growth, the best applications on improving ag extension services will continue to account for the human factor rather than try to prove it obsolete.

While it remains unknown what eventually causes developing, agrarian societies to make the leap to developed, post-industrial economies; it would be myopic to believe that ICT applications can single-handedly solve this problem through ag extension services. In an interesting conversation between Tyler Cowen and Jeff Sachs, where Professor Sachs highlights the importance of geographical contextualization in agricultural development, stating, “you cannot simply take, most of the time, something that worked here and plant it here”. Sachs points to the double miracle of the Green Revolution, where Mexican seeds worked in Indian growing conditions to significantly improve crop yields, but this success was largely contingent upon a year of experimentation by Norman Borlaug.

Consider the cricket

Cricket pizza at Tulsa State Fair – reposted from

Over the past few years, there has been a growing appetite for edible insects, with a greater number of restaurants serving chili-spiced grasshoppers and cricket-covered pizza. Much of the attention follows the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2013 report highlighting the importance of insect protein in the future of food security and reducing malnutrition. Nicolas Pena Parra even dreamed up the Locust Farm, as a means of providing nutrition to refugee families living in Dadaab, Kenya lacking access to protein-rich plants or livestock.

There are a multitude of environmental benefits supporting entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs. Bitwater Farms, located in Sacramento, California, champions the protein power found in crickets as an alternative to livestock and fish feed. Sean McDonald and his team developed Bitwater Farms in response to the environmental stresses caused by a rapidly expanding population. Current estimates project that protein production must double by 2050 to satisfy growing needs and adjust to changing tastes and wealth levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that upgrades in refrigeration and cold chain technologies combined with rising urbanization makes safe meat a popular menu item. While this increased demand can be achieved through livestock production, this stands to drive up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 39 percent. Even today, livestock production consumes 30% of crops, 8% of freshwater resources and 18% of GHG emissions. Globally, this adds up to an enormous amount of resources.

Crickets are rich in protein, making them a possible livestock food alternative, as well as being a less water-intensive solution to our own diets, and recently referred to as the “gateway bug” in edible insects. Bitwater compares the amino acid profile of a cricket to that of soy, describing their bugs as being high in omega fatty acids, iron, zinc and other micronutrients. Cricket metabolism relies on ambient energy and they consume considerably less water than other livestock. The main challenge is in producing crickets at a commercially viable level without losing any of these benefits.

A recent study by Michael Lundy detailed the inefficiencies in scaling the operation. In his research, Lundy found that in order to grow crickets to a harvestable size, they needed to be fed processed food waste at an industrial scale. When fed minimally processed municipal food waste, comprised mostly of straw, the crickets did not survive.  Therefore, to be commercially viable, crickets would need to consume the same grain-based diet that they had originally intended to supplant.

Lundy’s study is hopeful that crickets could still increase overall portions of protein delivered through their higher feed conversion. Additionally, he points out that crickets can be raised on organic side streams [wasted food], which we have in abundance (1.3 billion tons per year). His study highlights that in California alone, humans throw out about 2.2 million tons of dry food that crickets could convert to approximately 210,000 tons of dietary protein in the food supply. To put this number in perspective, dietary guidelines encourage women intake 46 grams of protein per day, or about 36 pounds of protein in a year. The conversion of California dry food waste could cover the protein supply of 11 million people for a year. Lundy also suggests the eating black solider flies, which offer similar protein content as crickets, but can sustain off lower quality organic side streams.

Historically speaking, eating bugs is not new. Pliny spoke of the Roman aristocrats feasting on beetle larvae reared on flour and wine. St. John the Baptist is thought to have survived on locusts and honey while living in the desert. In the US, shrimp and lobster are considered delicacies often demanding high market price at upscale restaurants. Although these crustaceans stem from the same arthropod family, in western culture they are perceived as cleaner and safer.

Virginia Emery compares the growth of the commercial insect industry to that of the commercial mushroom sector, which can also garner the negative perception of being unsanitary. These insects are grown in clean rooms with mostly organic feed, which makes sense since bugs are the primary target of pesticide design. While the FDA, CDC and USDA continue to strengthen policies to safely bring bugs to market, it is important note that there is already an acceptable level of bug fragments permitted in your food. These regulating bodies are particularly interested in understanding the potential allergen effects posed by edible insects, especially considering their relation to shellfish. Agencies speculate that the crickets could be safer than their livestock counterparts, which are susceptible to swine flu and other forms of infections that can cause human ailments, but also come with their own unique set of diseases.

Eating forces us to re-evaluate what we are consuming, as it becomes a part of us through the digestion process. If the cricket industry grows, will we find ourselves seeking module-free crickets, similar to the premium paid for cage-free chicken? Will insect-support groups demand fair treatment? The complete cycle of consuming a black soldier fly that lives off our own low quality waste, could potentially lead to more widespread thinking and greater awareness regarding the nature, quantity and rationale of low quality waste produced.