crop wild relatives – what they are and why we need them

Nature has been doing her thing for billions of years (maybe longer, I’m not sure).  It is only since about 200,000 years ago that humans entered the picture and it is only since about 15,000 years that humans have figured out agricultural production.  It is safe to say that nature may have a few tricks up her sleeves that we Homo sapiens cannot even begin to fathom – although our incredible brains are trying.

For the first 14,850 years of the human agricultural experience, seeds were simply saved from the plants that were growing.  Some cultures chose to save the seeds from the best-looking plants and others chose to save seeds from the smallest plants, so they could eat the best-looking seeds.  The latter was not the best decision and eventually all cultures began saving the seeds from the best and strongest plants.  This helped to improve production somewhat.

Then in the 1890s, we human folk decide that it might be wise to breed two plant types together in order to get even better production.  This gave birth to modern plant breeding. Soon after, during the Green Revolution, new types of staple crops were developed that were not sensitive to the number of daylight hours, produced larger amounts of above ground biomass and saved billions of people from starvation.  It was quite an accomplishment.

However, as a result of these scientific efforts, modern crops cannot grow without inputs from humans.  They lack the necessary defenses from the many surprises that the wild world has to offer.  This brings us to Crop Wild Relatives (CWR).  These are the wild relatives of the current crops.  They contain the valuable genetic information needed to maintain genetic diversity.  Such a quality is essential as monoculture practices continue to dominate the agricultural production landscape.  CWRs also continue to evolve in adaption to natural conditions – something that domesticated crops are incapable of doing.

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The information provided by the CWRs also contribute the development of more desirable qualities in domesticated crops. Pest resistance is one of these important factors, as in the case of three peanut crops that helped in the development of a crop variety resistant to the root-knot nematode that previously cost growers an estimated $100 million annually.

Furthermore, even in their wild state, some CWRs provide valuable nutrition for humans and other animals in areas that are not suitable for cultivation. Strong examples include the use of wild cowpeas and yams in Africa to help sustain the large population, and the consumption of wild fruits, such as apples, throughout Asia.  CWRs also provide valuable fodder, fiber and medicines.



the purpose of plant breeding and selection and why it is a never-ending story

Agriculture is the foundation of society as we know it and without the domestication of plants, agriculture would not be possible. Plant domestication, which is the process of adapting wild plants for the use of humans, is arguably more successful when practiced in conjunction with crop breeding. Crop breeding occurs when closely or distantly related plant varieties are interbred in order to create a new plant variation that has more desirable genes/traits.

The most common goal of crop breeding is the improve the genetic performance of plants. As plants are the principal producer of food for the planet as well as fundamental components of medicine, clothes, and raw materials, the primary performance goal of crop breeding remains increasing yield. However, there are many other goals of plant breeding, including:

  • Adaptions to abiotic conditions, e.g. drought and salinity, and biotic conditions, e.g. diseases and pest infestation;
  • Crack resistance;
  • Improved crop quality (better taste; more protein, vitamins, micronutrients, etc.);
  • Uniform production time;
  • Homogeneous appearance.

As a result of the process of plant breeding, domesticated plants, i.e. crops, are quite divergent from their genetic originals. The gap between crop wild relatives and crops will continue to widen in response to the evolving needs of the dynamic and constantly changing environment in which agriculture exists, which provides endless challenges and opportunities for breeders. There will always be new changes to the climate. Pests and diseases will adapt to new conditions. Evolution will remain a constant. Ergo, plant breeding will remain a prominent part of the horticultural and agricultural sectors. The ways by which crop wild relatives and domesticated plants compare are provided in the table below.

Comparison of Wild and Domesticated Plants

Wild Plants Domesticated Plants (Crops)
  • More adaptable
    • will grow under various conditions 
    • adapted to their native environment
  • Able to survive without human intervention
  • Expanded resistance to specific conditions
    • drought
    • flooding
    • heat
    • shade
    • cold/hot
  • Homogeneous
    • germination
    • appearance
    • height
    • fruit size
  • Shorter growing periods
  • Seeds do not self-disburse
  • Increased quality of harvest
    • higher vitamin, protein and micronutrient content
    • better taste

see also:

the green revolution

question: is there such thing as a human carrying capacity?

We are all living together here on this big beautiful green and blue rock we like to call Earth.  She provides us with so many wonderful things – most importantly the raw materials and environmental services that keep us alive.  Despite being so lucky as to have these gifts from nature, we as humans seem to continuously want more and more and more.  Now we have what is known as an ecological overshoot.  This means that there is an excess annual demand for the resources the earth can provide.

ecological overshoot

Normally, the overall population of humans should start to decrease because of a lack of resources needed to sustain the 7.5+ billion people.  This phenomenon refers to carrying capacity or the population size at which the population growth rate is zero. Population growth rate is affected by food availability, competition for resources and the impact of predators and disease. When the population size is smaller than the carrying capacity, the population will grow. If the population is greater than that of the carrying capacity, the population will decrease. Eventually, equilibrium will be reached and the population will stabilize. This occurs because birth and death rates are density dependent (as a result of competition for resources).

carrying capacity

When discussing humans, carrying capacity takes on a slightly different meaning. In terms of humans, it means the number of individuals that would be able to live at a certain standard of living and level of resource consumption. If everyone were to live at the standard of living like in the United States, the carrying capacity would be much lower than if everyone lived with lower standards.

Carrying capacity is difficult to address when dealing with humans because humans can remove or adjust many of the environmental constraints that would normally control a population’s size. This has enabled humans to expand to a population larger than that of what the world can sustain – without dramatic lifestyle changes in the western world and/or dramatic decreases in populations in developing worlds.

To find out about how your ecological impacts of your lifestyle, test your ecological footprint with an  Ecological Footprint Analysis.


community gardens discussed and analyzed

“The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Agriculture is defined as the science, art, and business of cultivating soil, producing crops and raising cattle. It is more commonly referred to as farming. Without it, society as we know it would not exist. It has enabled people to put down roots which provided the means for the world’s population to expand. Unfortunately, it has also been transformed by industrialization into a widely abused system that is dependent on government subsidies and environmentally unsound practices in order to produce food products with less nutritional value and poorer taste. Furthermore, the existing agriculture system is controlled by an increasingly small number of international firms.

However, grassroots efforts and individuals are choosing to look at food in a different way, a way that seems to be able to co-exist with ecosystems. A viable option that has been employed in the past, but since forgotten, is the community garden.

A community garden is any vacant land that is used for growing food and is accessible to community members. Not only do these gardens provide healthy food to demographics that many not otherwise have access, but it improves the overall quality of life in the community by reducing crime, encouraging exercise, and encourages people to have pride in their neighborhood. However, the benefits of community gardens are not limited to the community. Instead, the effects impact the whole ecosystem.

Many community gardens have strict rules about the methods members can employ, and choose to model organic farming methods. Those rules include limiting or banning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Some community gardens also ban certain species of plants that have been proven to attract pests or have no predators to limit spreading.

Community gardens limit non-organic pesticides and fertilizers, because of the effects that they can have on human, animal, and environmental health which allows for the natural qualities of soil and the ecosystem to shine.


Soil is an essential part of the growing environment and without healthy soil, one would not be able to produce healthy plants. Ideal soil for plants is composed of 25% air, 45% minerals, 25% water and 5% organic material. This mix allows for plant roots to efficiently breathe and absorb nutrients and water. However, different plants prefer different mixes of minerals and will tolerate varying degrees of acidity and moisture.

To create ideal soil that is rich in nutrients, well-aerated, and free from disease, many community gardens employ composting methods. Compost is the process of breaking down organic material. The result is a very dark, rich addition to any garden.

Compost is created by putting Nitrogen rich items (greens-vegetable scraps, lawn cuttings, and coffee grounds) and Carbon-rich items (browns-shredded cardboard, sawdust, and leaves) together into a well-ventilated space and mixing with water. The ideal ratio of Carbon to Nitrogen is 25-30:1. This mixture can heat up to 150 degrees from the work of macro and micro-organisms. The increased heat speeds up the breakdown process, and when coupled with Red Wiggler Worms, can reduce the decomposition time to only a few weeks.

Finished compost helps to reduce water use because it is will hold 6X’s more water than traditional soil. It also provides nutrients that would not otherwise be available to plants. This reduces and/or eliminates the need for any non-organic fertilizers, reducing cost and environmental impact while gardeners enjoy similar, if not better results.

Another benefit of compost is that it creates stronger plants, and can help to eliminate the need for pesticides. Pesticides include anything designed to destroy fungus, weed, insect or disease. These synthetic killers are non-discriminatory in their effects, and could just as easily kill family pets as insects. This harm could come from direct consumption, water-run off or from residual traces of chemicals in the soil.

compost 101

To further reduce the needs for pesticides, community gardens encourage and use “beneficial” pests. These are insects that are carnivorous and indigenous to the area. The most popular versions of these bugs are Praying Mantises, spiders, Ladybugs and Lacewings. It must also be noted that one should not introduce too many of one species or too many in general in order to maintain a balance.

When gardens choose not to introduce beneficial pests into the garden, they often choose to use other methods to protect their plants. Covering plants in light-weight netting can deter all insects but does not allow for pollination.

Another option is companion planting, such as putting onions or garlic with almost any plant, or celery with plants in the cabbage family. By planting certain plants together, the smells naturally detract invasive species. Marigolds, nasturtiums, and rosemary are also very pungent smelling and deter many pests.

As in any scenario, some problems arise with community gardens, including issues with existing soil, cultural sensitivities, unfavorable weather and the question of sustainability.

Since community gardens use whatever space is available, and the modern version originated in urban areas where the environmental impact of humans is greater than in rural areas. One of the biggest problems community gardens find is the presence of lead in the soil. Lead is devastating to life and is not easy to remove from soil.

Cultural sensitivities are also difficult to deal with, as they are generally historically rooted. In cities such as Chicago and Detroit, some groups are associating community gardening with slavery. This is difficult to deal with because community gardens are dependent on community involvement.

Weather can also impact the effectiveness of community gardens, especially in cooler climates. To deal with weather problems, community gardens use cold frames and wind tunnels. These structures help to regulate temperature and keep out harsh winds and snows. Sometimes, community gardens will couple these methods with cold hardy plants to lengthen the growing season.

The biggest concern that surrounds community gardens is their capacity to feed a large number of people since the population is not getting smaller and everyone needs to eat. There is a large amount of unused space in cities throughout America, but it is unclear if people are willing to utilize it for food production and put forth the effort needed to transform dilapidated neighborhoods.

While the concept of community gardens is not a new idea, society is in a unique situation that could revitalize their presence in towns and city throughout the country. This revival could help improve ecosystems everywhere, redistribute wealth and resources, encourage and the American agricultural system as a whole, or at least I think so!

For more information, check out this website about the steps needed to start a community garden:


Environmental Working Group. (n.d.) Farming: Farm Subsidies. Retrieved from

Pidwirny, Michael. (2013). Soil. Retrieved from

Runk, David. (2010). Lead, other chemicals taint some urban gardens. Times Union

Smith, Edward C. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. North Adams: Storey, 2010.

question: why are certain countries classified as failing states?

Throughout history, the greatest threats to the stability of global society have been dependent on states with too much power. However, in modern times it is the countries that cannot maintain power that threaten international stability. When a national government loses some or all of its power and cannot ensure the wellbeing of the citizens with basic necessities, it is considered a failing state. Due to the varying internal conflicts and lack of revenue to provide fundamental services, these countries often fall into civil disarray as citizens search for answers to their daily struggles. These conflicts often spread to surrounding lands creating war zones, rather than healthy societies. In turn, people suffer from hunger and health and environmental afflictions, such as a loss of fresh water and rampant disease, which have been remedied for the majority of citizens in successful states. The fragmented nature of failing state results in an inability to take collective positive action.

According to the analysis provided by The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine, there are 60 nations that are considered failing states based on “12 economic, social, political, and military indicators”. The following 20 countries are considered the “top” failing states: Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Guinea, Pakistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Burma, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, North Korea, Yemen, Bangladesh and Timor-Leste.

Qualities associated with failing states include rapid population growth and a lack of employment opportunities which is associated with an increased likelihood of insurgent activities. Often, people will turn to more economically gainful, albeit socially destructive, activities like drug production and pirating which further deconstructs the social foundation of these countries. Moreover, many of these countries are dependent on outside suppliers for food. In turn, basic infrastructure is left to fail as people struggle to meet their basic needs. When a population is unable to meet said needs, it results in political turmoil that in turn hinders efforts to modernize, effectively restarting the cycle of poverty, hunger and violence.