Can taming wild plants help feed a crowded planet? | St. Louis Public Radio

Can taming wild plants help feed a crowded planet?

Oct 18, 2016

Story updated at 1:18 p.m. Oct. 18 | Originally posted at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 11

Some scientists dream of a future in which people can add sorghum, intermediate wheatgrass and other currently wild perennial plants to their diet.

In St. Louis, researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis University are developing a list of wild perennials, which live for many years, to recommend for domestication. Researchers say such plants have the potential to make agriculture more sustainable and feed a growing human population.

Allison Miller, associate professor of biology at Saint Louis University, is one of the leaders of the Perennial Agriculture Global Inventory Project.
Credit Eli Chen

"We've been successful in feeding people using the agriculture that's developed to date," said Allison Miller, associate professor of biology at Saint Louis University. "But there are other ways we might do it and those ways may be, in the long run, more sustainable." 

Miller is one of the leaders of a three-year initiative called The Global Inventory Project, which aims to identify wild herbaceous perennial plants that could be candidates for domestication. Miller said it's unknown why these wild herbaceous perennials were never domesticated, but they can retain soil, hold water and support diverse microbial communities. The traits make them more sustainable than conventional crops, such as corn and soy. 

The Missouri Botanical Garden is researching wild perennial legumes to add to the list. Associate curator Wendy Applequist is studying them to see what species were previously consumed by humans, but not domesticated. She also looks at how toxic the legumes are to humans and if their size is compatible with a mechanical harvester.  

"Of all the thousands of candidate legumes, there will be a very narrow group that could really work in a commercial agricultural setting," Applequist said. 

She estimates there will be about 7,000 perennial legume species that fit the project's criteria. 

Wendy Applequist, an associate curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, is identifying species of wild legumes that might make good candidates for domestication.
Credit Eli Chen

The Global Inventory Project was started by the Kansas-based Land Institute, which has already begun the process of domesticating some wild perennials. 

"We're able to accelerate the plant breeding process a lot faster than, say, the Neolithic agriculturalists that started some of these first domestications back during the Fertile Crescent," said Tim Crews, the Land Institute's director of research. "We can move it from hundreds of years to decades, we think, and arrive at a more sustainable agriculture."     

In 2003, the Land Institute started working with intermediate wheatgrass, later renamed Kernza. The perennial grain now can produce as much a third of what wheat can yield. Crews believes that through continued selective breeding, it could match wheat.

Kernza can now be used to complement wheat to make a loaf of bread, but it can't be used make an entire loaf because its gluten ratio is still too low. 

Stands of intermediate wheatgrass, trademarked as Kernza.
Credit Provided by The Land Institute

In the long term, the Land Institute plans to domesticate more wild herbaceous perennials, as it is doing with Kernza. In contrast to the monocultures that dominate conventional agriculture, in which there are fields full of a single crop, the organization envisions growing the plants among a variety of other plants to mimic a natural setting, similar to a prairie. According to Crews, farming crops that way could reduce soil erosion and the use of inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticide. 

It's uncertain how this type of agriculture will stand up to environmental challenges brought on by climate change. 

"Truthfully, we don't know," Miller said.

But she added that in theory, growing a diversity of species together will make them more resilient than ones grown in monocultures. 

"The problem with annual agriculture," Applequist said, "is that you have to be constantly plowing, tilling or spraying, but people don't do these things to a prairie and yet it keeps growing just fine for a long time with minimal intervention."

Related Event

What: Perennial Polycultures: Sustainable, Edible Landscapes
When: Tuesday, Oct. 1 from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Where: Alberici Headquarters, 8800 Page, St. Louis, MO 63114
More information

An earlier version of the headline was modified to say "wild plants" instead of "wild crops," since all crops are domesticated. One sentence was clarified to say that The Global Inventory Project looks for wild perennial plants that could be candidates for domestication. Also, another sentence was clarified to state that it's unknown why wild herbaceous perennials were never domesticated.  

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli