Connecting for Crop Diversity: Enhancing Agriculture Research and Education Through Coordinated Conservation

By Tara Moreau (UBC Botanical Garden), Emily Detrick (Cornell Botanic Gardens), Sierra Laverty (Idaho Botanical Garden), Emily Hestness (U.S. Botanic Garden), Ari Novy (San Diego Botanic Garden), Sarah Beck (American Public Gardens Association), Allison Miller (St. Louis University), Jeff Kuehny (Louisiana State University AgCentre Botanic Gardens)

 

Conserving biodiversity for food and agriculture requires coordination and cooperation across local and global communities. Botanical gardens are at the crossroads of plant science and public engagement. Their living collections offer dynamic learning opportunities on a variety of topics, including those surrounding our food systems: agriculture, crop diversity, plant conservation, and more. Agricultural scientists are at the forefront of agroecology, plant breeding, and crop wild relative research.

 

Opening night gala at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

 

In April 2019, a remarkable collaboration between these two networks came to fruition through an innovative symposium, Celebrating Crop Diversity: Connecting Agriculture, Public Gardens, and Science. As the first gathering of its kind, the symposium set out to build relationships between public gardens and agroecology researchers, with the goal of safeguarding North America’s vital food plant genetic resources for present and future generations.

Hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden in Des Moines, Iowa, the three-day symposium drew over 100 participants from more than 26 botanical/public gardens, 18 colleges and universities, and four federal Agencies, as well as professionals from science centres, research organizations, plant conservation groups, and other non-governmental organizations. Through field trips, keynote talks, presentations, and networking activities, participants explored two key themes in agriculture: (1) crop diversity, with a focus on crop wild relatives, and (2) public engagement in agriculture education, with a focus on inclusion.

 

Crop wild relatives are wild plants closely related to agricultural crops.

 

Symposium Overview and Highlights


The symposium was made possible by a grant project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, in partnership with the U.S. Botanic Garden, and with generous support provided by Leichtag Commons. The core planning committee comprised individuals and member organizations from the American Society of AgronomyCrop Science Society of America, the American Public Gardens Association, and the World Food Prize Foundation. The event was a few years in the making and organizers conducted pre-meetings associated with the Crop Science meeting (Tampa, FL, Oct. 2017) and the American Public Gardens Association meeting (Anaheim, CA, June. 2018).

From the early planning stages, it became clear that in addition to highlighting ongoing work, the symposium had the potential to offer an important opportunity to launch longer-term initiatives to advance conservation and education related to crop biodiversity.

In April, the Celebrating Crop Diversity symposium kicked off with an all-day field trip where participants toured the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (which includes the National Corn Collection – 20,000 kinds of corn!!!), Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University, and Corteva AgriScience, followed by an opening reception at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Over the next two days, presenters shared their work on key themes including:

  • Biocultural conservation of crop wild relatives
  • Public gardens and museums engaging in science communication
  • Building partnerships through collaborations with scientists and extension agents
  • Crop breeding projects

Attendees learned about exciting initiatives, such as Food Forever, a global collaborative initiative to address the Sustainable Development Goals target of maintaining agricultural biodiversity, and Seeds of Success, an initiative of the Bureau of Land Management that focuses on the collection, study, and conservation of native seeds. Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, shared insights from the world’s largest initiative on crop wild relative conservation and use for safeguarding the foundation of our food. Internationally-celebrated nature writer, agrarian activist, and ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan emphasized conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Urban agriculture has become increasingly important to our well-being as urban populations continue to grow worldwide and rural population decline. The session ‘Using Agriculture to Engage and Enhance Communities’ included three case studies of very different urban agriculture programs that have been highly successful. Angela Mason, Associate Vice President and Community Engagement Director for
Windy City Harvest at Chicago Botanic Gardens has grown the urban agriculture program from one site to 13 urban food hubs throughout Chicago. Their mission is to provide agriculture education and job-training to help build local food systems, healthier communities and a greener economy. Sabine O’Hara, with the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia, provided insight on how a land-grant university has partnered with local organizations to engage the public on how to use sustainable farming techniques to improve food and water security through implementing and maintaining 5 different urban farms in separate Wards of DC. Duron Chevis, Manager of Community Engagement at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens of Richmond, Virginia, provided an overview of how the Beautiful RVA movement has helped to create vibrant and healthy communities through urban greening and beautification.

Additional presentations included examples of how botanical gardens are communicating agricultural science and controversy through exhibitions and educational programs; examples of breeding programs using crop wild relatives; and rules and regulations associated with collection and transfer of germplasm materials.

 

Tour of the corn collection at the North Central Region Plant Introduction Station.

 

Crop biodiversity is the foundation of agriculture. While the outcomes of the Celebrating Crop Diversity conference will take root and grow in years to come, two key achievements ensure the next steps are underway. First, organizers circulated and asked for input into a draft Road Map for Conservation, Use, and Public Engagement around North America’s Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Utilized Plants. Prior work by conference planners and collaborators described nearly 300 native crop wild relatives and useful wild species in North America (see North America Crop Wild Relatives 2018). However, no clear conservation strategy existed for these important taxa. The Road Map is a collaborative action plan to advance the conservation of crop wild relatives in North America and will be presented in full in the upcoming special issue of the scientific journal Crop Science dedicated to themes of the symposium. This forthcoming edition of Crop Science is the second key achievement of this collaborative event and will offer a permanent home in the scientific literature for work presented at the symposium.

The collaborative process of planning and hosting Celebrating Crop Diversity successfully brought together individuals and their networks for the shared goals of biodiversity conservation, agricultural research and future food security. We hope that the outcomes of the relationships built and the interdisciplinary dialogues begun at the symposium will continue and expand in the years to come.

Celebrating Crop Diversity

Click on above picture to view additional photos from the symposium!

 

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