The Good Seed Why it may not be good, on a stormy planet, to leave everything to biotechnology

My mother-in-law came to live with us in The Netherlands during the worst years of the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. When things calmed down she wanted to go back home. She then packed the items she had accumulated over a decade. Of course, it was too much for the standard airline baggage allowance and she asked me to help her re-pack. Part of her suitcase was occupied with what looked like bunched-up balls of tissue paper. What precious and fragile items did they protect?

I started to open one, and then another. None contained any of the pottery or jewelry I had expected. In fact the wrappings hid something she regarded as more precious—seeds, carefully dried and ready for future use. Every item of (to her) exotic fruit she had encountered in our fruit-growing area of The Netherlands—pears, apples, cherries, plums, and even grapes (yes, the climate is changing, and we have close by, on the banks of the Waal, a small vineyard) was well represented in a lovingly-preserved travel survival kit. You never know what will grow where, and when it might be useful.

My mother-in-law’s age was indeterminate, something of a problem in The Netherlands where having a valid birthday is the key to existence. But she remembered as a young adult the announcement of the death of King George the Fifth of England in 1936, so she must have been in her eighth decade. Her view was you were never too old to travel without seeds. My English grandmother fretted about us wearing clean underwear in case we were struck by a bus. My African mother-in-law thought that the biggest risk in life was to be caught in a tricky situation without the means to plant. In a world of constant hazard, you never know when you might be uprooted and have to begin again.

In the days of the slave trade, women from Sierra Leone, stripped of everything they possessed, nevertheless managed to smuggle seeds of African rice to the New World. According to some sources they hid these seeds in their hair. Never of commercial interest to the planters, African rice is now found in pockets all over the Americas—south, central and north—thanks to the foresight and sheer determination of these female forced migrants.

Thomas Jefferson introduced a consignment of African rice from Upper West Africa (from the Dembia river in what is today the Republic of Guinea) specifically to boost the welfare of enslaved people. Actually, he was wasting his efforts since this species of rice had already reached the Americas via the routes just described. Nevertheless, he was proud of what he had achieved. In fact, he later confided to his journal that he considered it one of his most noteworthy achievements to have introduced a plant potentially so useful to his country.

My English grandmother fretted about us wearing clean underwear in case we were struck by a bus. My African mother-in-law thought that the biggest risk in life was to be caught in a tricky situation without the means to plant. In a world of constant hazard, you never know when you might be uprooted and have to begin again.

Alas, he was mistaken. No one is ever going to make a fortune out of African rice. In good soils with abundant fertilizer it is generally a low-yielder. But it grows where almost nothing else will. We are here talking survival in the most arduous of conditions. We should all take note, for none of us knows if and when the world, or considerable sections of its population, might have to start all over again. We live in an era of volatile climate change.

Climate change is misnamed, really. Steadily increasing heat, or steadily intensifying cold, might be manageable. What seems more likely to cause problems is sudden change and an increased oscillation between extremes. No one knows how stormy it might get; and forecasting has never been an exact science. As I write, the city of Montpellier, in southern France—home to a great university, renowned for its agricultural sciences—has been hit by a rain storm so severe (300 mm in one day) that the climate scientists state (at least on the basis of historical patterns) this was a once in a hundred years event. But no one knows if it might now become a one in ten years event. That’s the real problem with climate change—the weather.

This suggests we need to attend to risk preparedness. Better to take the sunglasses, and the umbrella. Yet, in regard to seeds we seem determined to leave the second item behind. Still we think science will fix it. Are we wise to assume that science will have all the answers?

Of course, there are always the optimists. But sometimes science is too slow, too far away, or barking up the wrong tree.  We know this from the current West Africa epidemic of Ebola Virus Disease. This has suddenly grown beyond all expectations into a truly frightening event of global significance. Science has had its hands on numerous potential vaccines and cures for years. Only now, when it is almost too late, are we scrambling for remedies.

So maybe we should think twice before handing over our future global food security to the biotechnology experts, and their boardroom slow waltz over what might or not turn a decent profit? Maybe a belt-and-braces policy is better. Others will make a case for the braces; I have no desire to gainsay them. Biotechnology has its place. But it shouldn’t take over the entire house. Here I want to talk a bit about the belt.

In all periods of history prior to the present people have had the option of grabbing precious stock of seeds before they had to run for it. Only in the last 20-30 years have large portions of the human race abandoned the safety belt provided by home-made seeds. For a few years at the end of the 20th century it even looked as if that belt was about to be made illegal. Only certificated varieties (those standardized by seed companies and invested with intellectual property) were to be permitted. Fortunately, some wiser counsel intervened, and heritage varieties are now increasingly protected. But heritage sounds like a museum. What about the motors of selection through which heritage varieties were first shaped? Where are those, and do they still work? This is my theme.

African rice can provide us with further instruction on this point. But to do this, I need to broaden the notion of “African rice” to include all rice grown in Africa (or at least, in West Africa, my case study region).

African rice is very closely related, genetically, to a wild grass of the same genus. Archeologists have found evidence of wild rice being gathered in West Africa around three millennia ago. Doubtless, the gatherers then exerted selection pressure on the plant (they would have selected for types that did not shed their seed so heavily at harvest) and a cultivar began to emerge, perhaps first planted on the margins of lakes and meres and in riverine flood plains of the region bordering the Sahara.

Let us suppose that cultivators, liking what they saw, began to plant the crop further up the river banks, especially in the wetter regions, until they reached land types fed only by the West African monsoon. This would select for more drought-tolerant rices, freeing cultivators from reliance on wetland production.

This development of dryland cultivars will have been of great importance as population densities increased and malaria became a greater constraint on human survival in wetland environments. But if populations were then able to use dryland African rice to spread agricultural settlement into wooded and forested uplands, the malaria soon followed.

The emergence of the sickle cell (a mutation of a hemoglobin gene, that confers resistance to malaria in carriers of a single copy of the gene but is lethal among those unfortunate enough to carry two copies) spread rapidly among West African populations from about 500 years ago (according to recent genetic estimates).

A region in which African rice was to be the dominant agricultural staple emerged along the margins of the Upper West African forest, centered on what is today the Republic of Sierra Leone, and the various language groups of this region share some of the highest sickle cell gene frequencies in Africa. Only in the depths of the forest did human populations escape the blessing of rice and the curse of malaria, something today marked by the very low sickle cell gene frequencies among people in south-eastern Liberia.

The Portuguese, followed by the British, French and Dutch, then incorporated coastal Upper West Africa into the global commercial economy through the slave trade from the 15th century CE. This brought about major changes in rice cultivation. No one knows for sure when and where Asian rice was first introduced into West Africa. It may have had multiple points of entry, some along the coast. One of these routes may have been overland, via Darfur and the Nile. But there is also some varietal evidence to suggest the Portuguese introduced both indica and sativa sub-species of Asian rice into West Africa via Cacheu (Guinea Bissau) and Elmina (Ghana).

One Portuguese visitor in the early 17th century described a type of rice grown in the mountain valley of the Sierra Leone peninsula as being as white as the rice grown in Valencia. This was evidently an Asian rice, already at this date firmly in the hands of African farmers. African rice is red skinned, and some of the redness carries over into the cooking, a characteristic admired by many local groups but disliked by the European visitors.

Evidence of further introductions of Asian rice types appears at the end of the 18th century, when American slave traders at the Iles de Los (Guinea-Conakry) trading with Charleston appear to have brought Carolina rice types to the region. As governor of the model colony for freed slaves at Sierra Leone the Scottish abolitionist Zachary Macaulay used his not inconsiderable business skills and contacts in Britain to try and set up an export trade in rice from the districts north of Freetown.

African red rice was associated with the victualing of the slave ships. The London market would take only white rice. Macaulay hoped that white Carolina rice would provide an economic lifeline for the infant abolitionist colony. The venture failed. Farmers found African red rice better suited to their intractable soils, and the population of Freetown found it to be more flavorsome and nutritious.

Today, African farmers can distinguish between rice morphotypes. They often describe African rice by its more erect simple-branched panicle (grain head), for example. Thereafter things quickly get complicated, since each rice type has its own name, characteristics, history, and environmental niche. The farmer’s field is a patchwork of minutely adapted rice selections grown for flavor, ripening interval, adaptation to soil and moisture conditions, and ability to compete with or resist particular classes of weeds or pests. Some are grown simply for color, grain shape, or other unusual properties; they are valued as talking points or because they make people laugh. In all this welter of information known to enthusiasts there is nothing corresponding to the species concept. Rice has no nationality—whether African or Asian. Rice is rice, the more the merrier.

A highly important point is that African rice farmers are often willing to mix rice types in a single field. Sometimes this is because the seed has been mixed by accident. At other times it has been mixed as a deliberate strategy. This may be because farmers find that two or more varieties planted side by side make a better collective job of utilizing the soil moisture and nutrients, or keeping weeds and pests at bay. And they may be right, since rice rooting systems are often different, and exploit different soil depths.

Or the different varieties may grow at different speeds, allowing an early and late harvest, and thus saving labor in planting, weeding and pest control. Much smallholder rice farming in West Africa still involves harvesting the crop head by head with a knife, and this allows the reapers to select carefully between different types as they bring in the harvest.

Here comes the point—some varieties flower side-by-side in the same field, and this allows gene flow between varieties. Rates of gene flow for varieties planted in the same field are much higher than for varieties planted in adjacent plots. Rice is mainly self-fertilizing, but it will pollinate with a neighboring plant in about one per cent of cases. This is enough, in mixed fields, to ensure that farmers can still recognize and select out pure lines if they choose, but equally offers them a small but significant lucky dip of genetically mixed varieties every time they plant.

Some are grown simply for color, grain shape, or other unusual properties; they are valued as talking points or because they make people laugh. In all this welter of information known to enthusiasts there is nothing corresponding to the species concept. Rice has no nationality—whether African or Asian. Rice is rice, the more the merrier.

Many of these genetically interesting off-types are left for gleaners after the main harvest. These are often widows or older women in the community. These women fill up their emergency traveling bags with diverse materials, and when faced with emergency and it is time to move (to shift with climatic contingencies or hide from the slave raiders, or diamond-digging rebels with Kalashnikovs) they have the means not to reproduce the old agrarian life but rapidly to evolve a new one, fitted to their changed circumstances. Seemingly eccentric to some, these ladies know what they are about. They are safe-guarding life itself.

So where is the evidence? In 2004 Dr. Monty Jones, a plant breeder from Sierra Leone, won the World Food Prize for his work in developing rices from the crossing the African and Asian species. These new rice types for Africa (Nerica) have reportedly improved food security in many African rice-growing countries. Earlier experimental crosses had been attempted previously but proved infertile. Jones and his colleagues persisted and showed that a supposed sterility barrier was not absolute. Might West African small-scale farmers (even more persistent mixers and hybridizers of rice over many years) have enjoyed some similar, but unrecognized success?

My colleagues and I set about testing this hypothesis about ten years ago. We collected farmer rice varieties in seven West African countries (Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo). We tested 315 samples using a genetic marker technology. We found three clusters corresponding to African rice and the two sub-species of Asian rice (indica and japonica), but we also found a clearly distinct fourth group, that we identified as comprising crosses between Asian and African rice. This group could be sub-divided on morphological grounds, one sub-group having a droopy panicle (more closely resembling Asian rice) and the other an erect panicle (more closely resembling African rice).

Since Nerica rices were beginning to spread widely we needed to be able to ascertain that these farmer hybrid-derived rices were distinct from the Nerica series. Fortunately for our hypothesis, Dr. Jones had chosen to work with crosses of African rice and the japonica sub-species of Asian rice. On molecular grounds our fourth cluster of candidate farmer hybrids could be assigned, on the Asian rice side, an indica parentage.

Furthermore, there was historical evidence to suggest that at least some of the forty or more farmer hybrid rices had been around for up to half a century or more. We concluded that in-field cross-pollination and repeated farmer selection and planting of progeny, some of which had been crossed back on to one of the parents, had helped to stabilize a distinct set of new varieties.

We then ascertained that some of these varieties had been adopted widely in the region and were valued for both improved yield and hardiness in difficult conditions.

We also had data from a natural experiment. The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) had forced large numbers of farmers from their homes. Some refugees uprooted by this conflict ended up in regular camps and were fed by international aid. Others were less fortunate and ended up on the wrong side of the lines, cut off from humanitarian aid.

We studied the varieties farmers had grown before, during and after the civil war. In general, the war favored farmer hybrids over some of the high-yielding but less hardy Asian rice types. Uptake of farmer hybrids was especially marked in the areas cut off from humanitarian aid, where farmers had to survive solely by their efforts, and often when displaced temporarily on to unfamiliar land.

We then devised a large physiological experiment. We tested a varied group of farmer selections, and one or two new varieties across five countries. It was generally argued by plant breeders that farmer varieties are locally adapted. Only a scientific approach reliably generates varieties with broad adaptation. This was a foundation factor in the Green Revolution for wheat and maize. Thus we sought to discover how well farmer varieties did when taken out of their own local comfort zone.

If accepted theory was right, they should not have done well at all. We found the opposite. Farmer varieties generally out-performed the modern varieties. So far as we could ascertain, it was the older-established types that performed best across the range of environments. Some of the japonica rices, perhaps progeny of recent introductions, performed well but only in specific niches. They lacked the broad-adaptation of the majority of the farmer varieties. The African rice types were among the most robust and had truly surprising yields. It should be added that all experiments were carried out in typical conditions for small-scale dry-land rice farmers.

We had selected our rice types for the experiment before we had the molecular results, and by bad luck none of the varieties chosen was a farmer hybrid. This leaves us with an interesting challenge for future research.

What are the conclusions for the future of global agriculture? Seemingly, two stand out. First, when it comes to seed selection, a million heads are better than one. The process of farmer plant improvement is general right across the rice-growing region in West Africa. Keeping planting material in play through constant use and selection allows for a myriad of adaptation decisions. This is probably better than digging a tunnel and burying seeds under a polar ice-floe. It may offer a more insightful view of future challenges than can be achieved by the board of a biotech seed company faced with conditions of rapid planetary flux. Second, food security is potentially provided right where it is needed. No need for humanitarian relief flights and feeding stations. Local farmers grow their way out of difficulty. Of course, this is not to say they should do it all alone. There is no need to deny them the benefits of international social solidarity, and science can strengthen rather than oppose farmer agency. This means it needs to become part of the social worlds of farmers, and build strength from within, through understanding not only how plants grow but how local social worlds work.

At the same time, some strong international forces need to be resisted. The desire of rich countries to protect their own farmers by dumping cheap food on regions such as West Africa is an ever-present risk. This damages food and seed sovereignty. The merchants of cheap food will disappear when the going gets tough. The farmers will abide, and both need and deserve support. Their technological achievements should be the stuff of which the dreams of an entire generation of young Africans are built.

Nobel prizes for African farmers? Well, maybe not. But of one thing I am certain. My mother-in-law is vindicated. It makes sense to take unusual seeds with you when you are forced to embark on a journey with unknown outcomes.