Saturday, June 15, 2013

Plant Breeding: It's not just about science, we need it


We recently looked into the basics of plant breeding at Cornell University.  We talked about the different shapes and sizes of our everyday food, but this story goes much deeper.  This isn't just about pretty fruit, it's the everyday miracle of life.  It's easy to take for granted that sparkling fruits and veggies just appear everyday at the local store, but the story that unfolds when tracing those veggies back is incredible.  There are teams of researchers and farmers working to select and develop the highest quality produce.  As we all see in the news and in our lives, there are challenges we must face everyday, there is no exception for plants.  As the seasons change, as the climate changes, as the soil changes, each plant must learn to adjust or face its inevitable demise.  Unlike humans, the earth and cosmos don't think in 79 year lifetimes, these evolutionary battles rage on for thousands of years, but incredibly, humans can step in and play a role in assisting our plant friends if only for the selfish reason that we rely on them for sustenance.  It's not to say these plants wouldn't survive without humans, as they did this for thousands of centuries before we came to exist, but the wild and domesticated varieties in which we can eat do need us to continue to propagate them and maintain their seeds.  If it wasn't for human intervention, we may not have a...

delicious tomato today.  The tomatoes eldest generation were small  in size and even believed to be poisonous by many.  It wasn't until generation after generation of cultivation and plant breeding did we get to the large, sweet, delicious fruit we love today.  

We have needs and by working in accord with a blend of natural processes and human needs we create a system to benefit both us and the plants.  There are so many bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases just waiting to attack our favorite foods as well as armies of insects that feast on preventing a plant from fully developing to its potential.  As intelligent beings, it is our job to recognize the good from the bad and assist the beneficials in the fight against destructive pests and diseases.  In a sustainable, natural, organic agricultural system, the humans subtly guide nature to the benefit of our friendly aerobic soil allies who in turn defend against the malevolent plant destroyers our farmers fight every year.  It's incredible to see how proper management of our soils can affect food production in such a dramatic way.  Aeration, moisture retention and natural nutrient sources i.e. organic matter all benefit the ecosystem that defends our plants during the growing season.  Trillions of microorganisms we can barely see with a microscope all eating, converting and releasing nutrients for our everyday foods to thrive.  I'm not saying we need to sit around thinking about this every waking hour, but it is incredible and it is valuable to think about it enough to ensure a system that we can rely on to improve as we go.  We learned how to pollinate from the bees, the butterflies and other pollinators, we learned how to cultivate land by watching the successes of nature. 

As with everything in life, balance and diversity is the key to success, so cheers to the past, present and future plant breeders.


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