Human beings depend upon a handful of flowering plants for 80% of their caloric intake - this in spite of the estimated approximately 400,000 species of flowering plants! In the face of discussions and concerns about global food security, agriculture's attention is turning to the wild species that are related to these staple crops for ideas about how to face massive environmental change.
For the past few days, I have been at a meeting convened by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (http://www.croptrust.org/) and funded by a variety of organisations to discuss the challenges and opportunities wild relatives of crops represent. Now, my take on these plants is very firmly from the biodiversity end of the spectrum - and is pretty narrowly focused on Solanaceae, so these few days have been a real learning experience! The group includes people working on rice, maize and wheat, but also apples, barley, amaranthus, soybean, peanut - you name it, the crop is there! The place is also fantastic - the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey peninsula in central California - what better place to come together and leave day-to-day cares behind to really talk about issues.
The view of the Pacific Ocean (very cold!!) from Asilomar State Park
What has surprised me is the degree to which the world of germplasm banks (sort of museums for the seed and plant collections used by plant breeders to improve our crop plants) is parallel to, but rarely intersecting with, my more familiar museum world. Databases are an issue, the avalanche of data coming from genomic approaches .... we all have these same challenges! We could do a lot to help one another, and to see how the challenges we face are actually the same at their core, with subtle differences depending on the specific circumstances.
I feel incredibly privledged to have been invited to be a part of this group - and realise how relevant the data we hold in our rich and global collections can be used to help other communities .... however distant those might be.
Solanaceae - my nightshades - have as members many important vegetable crops - tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant (aubergine).... vegetables are often left out of the equation in terms of food security, where focus is on the big grain crops that provide our carbohydrates. But vegetables are key to a balanced diet - vitamins and nutrients are key to human health. Vegetablse are also locally adapted and consumed, providing a unique opportunity for linking local and global issues, and for linking food prduction to biodiversity issues.
My brain is buzzing with new ideas and possible new projects for the future.... at museums we often get bogged down in the enormity of our task, describing wild diversity and enablign its conservation, such that the sheer massive usefulness of the informationfrom our collections we hold and curate for future generations to biology beyond the museum walls can slip into the background. Getting out into communities very different from our own can be scary (lots of words I don't know were bandied about these few days!!) but it is critical for realising the role the Museum can play - its big, and a bit frightening, and very different - but oh so exciting!.
Getting out is GOOD!!
Sunset over the Pacific.....