Landrace Gardening: Food Security Through Biodiversity

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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The recent history of agriculture documents many examples of crop failures that resulted from a pest overcoming a plant’s defenses and then spreading widely in a short period of time. This wildfire-like spread of plant pathogens is due to the genetic uniformity of the affected crops. Similar failures routinely happen due to weather. Landrace gardening largely avoids these problems by maintaining wide genetic diversity within species, and by growing many different species.

After the 1970 corn blight, the National Academy of Science warned that crops in the United States are impressively vulnerable to failure due to genetic uniformity. It seems to me that the trend towards uniformity has accelerated since that time. I expect the trend to continue in mega-agriculture due to the increasing mechanization of farming.

I have witnessed a counter-trend among small scale growers. The reasons given for seeking out genetically diverse crops varies among gardeners. Some are seeking a wider flavor palate. Others love the exciting colors. Some want higher nutritional content. I grow landrace crops primarily for the reliability: Genetically-diverse locally-adapted crops produce more reliably for me. I believe that the plants are less susceptible to total crop failure due to pests or weather. I also reap the benefit of my food not looking or tasting bland and boring. I harvest by hand, so I do not benefit from uniformity of ripening dates, or height of a cob of corn, or a consistent fruit shape.

I am expanding the biodiversity of crops in my garden by growing traditionally cloned crops from seeds instead of cloning. Nearly all potato varieties available on the market are sterile clones without the ability to produce seeds.  I trialed many varieties until I found some that produce fruit with viable seeds. Then I stopped growing the non-seeding varieties. The photo of potatoes shows what the offspring look like. Each basket of potatoes in the photo represents the offspring of one seed. By routinely growing potatoes from promiscuously pollinated seeds, I am hoping to eliminate the possibility of a potato famine affecting my valley. Those of us involved in this endeavor say that we are growing “True Potato Seed.”

My favorite current project is creating a landrace of garlic that reproduces via pollinated seeds. The photo is of a garlic flower. I’m planning a blog for about November to report the current year results for this project. The garlic genome has suffered even more than potatoes from monoculture cloning, but my collaborators and I have obtained wild ancestors from around the Tian Shan Mountains in central Asia which have retained the ability to make seeds. We are working with that germplasm to create a landrace of promiscuously pollinated garlic. We say that we are attempting to create “True Garlic Seed.”

In addition to maintaining biodiversity within a species, we can also increase the diversity of our gardens by growing additional species. Instead of growing only common beans, I am growing fava beans, runner beans, Lupini beans, tepary beans, cowpeas, garbanzo beans, soybeans and a couple of species that I can’t name. It is unlikely for a disease, parasite, weed, insect or weather pattern to overcome all of those species at the same time.

Recently I read an article from MOTHER EARTH NEWS about edible dahlias. I am intending to start growing them. That will be a great addition to the sunroots and edible canna lilies that I am already growing. I am growing genetically diverse sunroots from seeds. It is commonly thought that sunroot flowers are sterile, but my sunroots are prolifically seeding because unrelated individuals are allowed to promiscuously pollinate each other. Sunroots are typically grown as clones, which are self-incompatible, and thus do not set seeds. A cross-pollinating crop can adapt to my garden. A clone is always a clone.

Growing a wide variety of genetically diverse crops decreases the possibility of total crop failure. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Next week I will write about growing potatoes from true seeds.

Photos by Joseph Lofthouse

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art oflandrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.