Weeds Might Be the Food of the Future

Watch your back, kale: Scientists hope food crops can learn something about survival from these hearty pests.

(Photo: Andrey Nekrasov/Getty Images)

Abigail Higgins is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya and New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Boston Globe, and The Times of London on women's rights, global health, and development.

Like many people trying to head off humanity’s descent into a possibly apocalyptic future, Lewis Ziska gets frustrated by ignorance. “We think food comes from a magic room at the back of Safeway,” gripes the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant physiologist.

If it is, that room isn’t providing enough. One in eight people in the world is undernourished; the vast majority of them in developing nations. By 2050, there are projected to be 9 billion people in the world—a world in which climate change is projected to inflict serious damage on food production—especially, once again, in developing nations.

Ziska thinks he might have found a way to help feed all those mouths: with weeds.

Climate change will wither many of the crops that feed us, such as rice and wheat. Many plants that humans have designated as “weeds,” however, are hardier than food plants, and better able to adapt to the new climate. As your driveway can attest, they’re really good at growing in inhospitable environments.

Today, weeds are the biggest cause of crop loss around the world; if our warming world helps them flourish, it could spell disaster, says Dr. Mark Howden, an expert on climate change and agriculture at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's national science agency.

Ziska believes that if we can isolate what makes them so hardy, we may be able to use them to prepare modern crops to survive in a changing planet.

“Many weeds are related to crops,” Ziska says. After all, food crops all began as wild weeds that humans cultivated through breeding and selection. That’s why he and other scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are working to crossbreed wild strains of wheat, oats, and rice with their domesticated cousins.

Weeds alone aren’t the answer to a caloric crists. But they could be an important part of a larger pattern of research that grapples with increasing demand and decreasing food supplies by breeding crops with higher yields and plants with deeper roots, developing cropping systems that use less water, and attempting to increase the amount of arable land.

All of this research competes for funding and battles public indifference about issues that still seem distant, though they’re not. A 2011 study found that climate change is seriously cutting into crop yields in several countries.

“Cereals make up 50 percent of all the food on the planet, and the cost of food has gone up by 50 percent in the last two years,” Ziska said. “We’re not putting the effort and resources needed into a second green revolution to meet the population demands of 9 billion people by mid-century.”

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