Seeds From Wild Crop Relatives Could Help Agriculture Weather Climate Change

"The hardy wild cousins of domesticated crops can teach us how to adapt to a hotter, more unpredictable future."

"In the rugged Tumacácori mountain region 45 minutes south of Tucson, the Wild Chile Botanical Area (WCBA) was established in 1999 to protect and study the chiltepin pepper—the single wild relative of hundreds of sweet and hot varieties including jalapeño, cayenne, and bell peppers, found on dinner plates worldwide.

The isolation of this ecologically rich archipelago of peaks, located in a “sea” of desert that stretches from northern Mexico into southern Arizona, means that plants grow here that don’t grow anywhere else. Its 2,800 acres—the first protected habitat for the wild relatives of crops in the United States—now shelter not just a single pepper but at least 45 different species.

Between 2021 and 2022, the Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN), an Arizona-based conservation non-profit, worked with the U.S. Forest Service to identify and collect other wild relatives of crops in this area. The idea behind the project was to build food security in a world where all climate models are pointing to hotter and dryer extreme conditions.

“You have this dramatic topography that provides all these different ecological niches for different things to grow,” said Perin McNelis, 36, native plant program director at the BRN. “Where better to start than an area that is already hot and dry, with all these wild relatives that are really adapted to conditions that will be more widespread in the future.”"

Samuel Gilbert reports for Civil Eats April 22, 2024.

Source: Civil Eats, 04/25/2024