While Dr. Laszlo Holly stood near the tiny railroad station in Tápiószele, Hungary, waiting for some guests to arrive, he looked at the space between and alongside the tracks and noticed growing there Lactuca serriola, a weed and progenitor of lettuce that is taking a lot of space on Hungarian farms. The curious thing was that he knew the railroad treated the area with herbicide, but apparently, the weed was resistant. He made a mental note to look into it.
Soft-spoken Dr. Holly is the director of the Hungarian Institute for Agrobotany, about 80 kilometers southeast of Budapest. It owns 300 mostly sylvan hectares of land and cultivates about half. Its primary concern is exploring and collecting genetic resources of field and vegetable crops, with special emphasis on local Hungarian material. Institute staff members have visited more than a thousand collection sites and gathered 8,974 samples of ‘locally adapted varieties and ecotypes’ since the Institute was established in 1958.
These are not collected simply for archival purposes. The Institute’s assortment is an important way to preserve crop diversity not only in Hungary but worldwide. The cultivars are indispensable to breeders who go to the Institute to widen their range of genetic material to increase the variants of their seeds. In fact, the Institute has distributed nearly 100,000 samples, mostly landraces (plant varieties produced under cultivation) to breeders in the last 30 years. Without these primary breeding sources, many of the characteristics of today’s crops would be lost.
Once the Institute’s staff has collected seeds, they conduct what sounds to the outsider like an enormously tedious practice of cleaning before drying them to a moisture of five to six percent. They are then dropped into air-tight containers and put into cold storage. If they are to be part of the Institute’s ‘active’ collection (for contemporary use), they are housed in a temperature around 0° C. If they are in the ‘base’ collection, they are kept in a -20°C environment, where they will survive for up to 100 years or more.
Ironically, these cultivars are meant to counteract some of the advances made by plant geneticists that have had big drawbacks. For example, although Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug’s 1960s breakthrough hybridization of semi-dwarf wheat (with the use of a Japanese gene bank) supplied varieties with the double advantage of increased harvests and firmer stalks, the same was not necessarily true for quality traits. In areas such as Romania and Bulgaria, where maize is a popular food, Dr. Holly’s group found that hybrids were not suited for human consumption. ‘The hybrids were too soft with too much carbohydrate content,’ he said.
Therefore, geneticists now acknowledge a need to preserve pre-hybrid species. As part of his career development Dr. Holly spent five years with the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). That experience taught him that ‘the world is too large and too diverse to be covered by one or two cultivars’. Borlaug’s breakthrough could not be applied everywhere.
‘There was a need for more local adaptation. When I worked for ICARDA, we collected in different countries, selecting cultivars or strains for testing. In time we recognized it would be better to use the local landrace as parent. There were also experiments of crossing high-yielding cultivars with local varieties. ‘The Mexican wheat was most successful when local breeders crossed it with local landraces. And there was a series of such wheat cultivars produced, like Mexi-Pak, which is the Pakistanian version.’
Another example was the crossing of Ethiopian lentils with Mexican lentils to create a rust-resistant variety. And they discovered that barley cultivars ‘developed on the spot’, were more stable and higher yielding in marginal lands. ‘For the last 10 years there is a tendency to involve farmers in plant breeding. It is sometimes called on-farm selection.’
The Institute for Agrobotany monitors diversity in three parts of Hungary, each with its own unique soil and climate, representing different crop environments. Most importantly, they are areas where traditional farmers are still working on small plots of land, back yards, and remote areas.
Such small farms are becoming a rarity in Hungary as elsewhere. Large-scale farms, originated under the Hungarian communist regime (1948-1990), dominate agriculture. Now owned by corporations and highly mechanized, they employ fewer and fewer farm workers and concentrate on producing wheat and maize, aside from a few vegetable crops, such as peas or tomatoes. When legumes and oil crops are added to the cereals, the big farms cultivate about 3.6 million hectares using about 2/3 of Hungary’s cultivated land. Wheat is used for bread and corn is for animal feed. The surplus yield is exported. Hungary’s table vegetables are largely produced on small farms or back yards, a tradition that persisted during the communist period when collective-farm laborers were allowed to cultivate up a hectare for their own use.
The small farmers were, and still are, archivists. They preserved many of the different types of crops developed without the contribution of scientific plant breeding. And, for that preservation, geneticists are truly thankful.
Richard W Bruner is a journalist (and member of Slow Food), now based in Budapest.