October 18th, 2013 by Sandy Dechert
So are the grapes and wines of the 20th century. Blackmore relates the phenomena to the power of climate change. The geography of earth’s agriculture will shift as global climate alterations disrupt historic weather patterns and raise world temperatures. Crops like barley, which tolerate snow and frost but not heat and drought, may need to be relocated to cooler locations.
Earth’s traditional vineyards may fall victim to similar phenomena as climate change extends drought and desertification farther out from the equator. On the other hand, wine-making may prosper in unexpected places like England and Scandinavia because the temperate zones will extend closer to the poles.
Wineries may have the advantage of easier relocation because of their tradition as cottage industries, although it can take years to establish new vineyards from scratch. Climate disruption will be particularly hard on manufacturers of leading brands of beer and will likely boost prices. Mass-production brewers may face both huge capital costs in constructing new high-tech facilities and major production hangups from changing suppliers and adapting to new transportation modes. Like wineries, small craft breweries are more resilient and have less infrastructure at risk. However, they have relatively limited budgets and often proudly tie their production and marketing to niche locations.
Genetic modification might offer an alternative to moving crops and facilities around because of climate change. However, DNA reengineering involves high costs, uncertain results, safety questions, and debatable ethics. Legality and unforeseen environmental impacts also pose daunting questions. The reputations of huge combines like Monsanto have slipped from their former heights thanks to their wholesale conversion to GMO and inability or unwillingness to protect natural crops and related animal species.
There’s a third possibility, though, a method that has worked for generations. Nils Stein, a scientist at the Leibniz Institute for Plant Genetics, has suggested that examining genetic tolerance to cold, drought, and heat in the thousands of alternative species held in the international seed banks may be useful. We could traditionally crossbreed more climate-hardy, zero-GMO varieties of barley and the grape.
Biologists maintain seed banks by periodically replanting seeds and collecting fresh ones. Recalcitrant seeds like cocoa and rubber resist storage, but others can stay viable for hundreds or even thousands of years. For example: the Judean date palm, a cultivar of Phoenix dactylifera, which provided food, shelter and shade in the Jordan River valley for millennia. (See creative commons photo at right.) The Romans exterminated the species about 1500 years ago in an apparent effort to cripple the Jewish economy. However, a preserved 2000-year-old (carbon-14-dated) seed of this plant, found in excavations at the palace of Herod the Great at Masada and planted in a pot by modern scientists, sprouted in 2005. The plant, known as “Methuselah” for its longevity, has since been transplanted to the soil and has grown over six feet tall.
One of the earliest seedbanks, the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia, started in the early part of the 20th century. Named for its founder, geneticist and botanist Nikolai Vavilov, it survived the two-year Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Several botanists starved to death during the siege rather than eat the collected seeds.
Five years ago, about 1,300 seed banks throughout the world held millions of samples of particular populations. More have been added since then, especially because climate change has begun to limit biological diversity.
The largest seed bank is the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank Project. Its tenders ultimately aim at storing every plant species possible. Ten percent have been collected now, and 25% are expected by 2020. The Millenium Project’s nuclear-bombproof multi-story underground vault was constructed in 2000 near Kew Gardens, outside London.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust built the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in 2008. This installation is a man-made tunnel inside a sandstone mountain on the frozen island of Spitsbergen.
In the United States, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, is known as the “Fort Knox” of the seed world. Australia and India house other important collections.
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