Kiwi seed hunters travel the world so scientists can breed 'super-grass'

by Eloise Gibson / 13 February, 2017
ArticleGalleryModule - The Kiwi seed hunters who travel the world

It isn’t clear what the Russian farmers thought a pair of Kiwis were doing, bent over in the clover in a paddock in a remote region near Mongolia.

They must have looked suspicious. Not long after Zane Webber and Michelle Williamson were spotted by a tractor driver, high in the beaut­iful Altai Mountains, a man pulled up in a station wagon and waved an ID badge in Williamson’s face. During other, similar confrontations, Webber has tried making cud-chewing noises. “Of course, they don’t speak English, so I’m saying moo and making eating noises. Num, num, num, mooooo!” he says.

This seldom cuts it. On one occasion, his interrogator tried eating some old, dried seed heads that Webber was carrying, and began choking. The com­munication barrier is one reason Webber and Williamson always travel with locals. This time, their Russian colleagues showed their permits to the wildlife official, who left, apparently satisfied. Even so, their mission must have sounded odd, despite being translated from mooing.

Webber and Williamson are seed hunters. They and their colleagues fly and drive to Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, China, Spain, Greece, Portugal and elsewhere in pursuit of rare and ancient wild plants. This in itself is not odd. Collectors from many gene banks globally collect plant material for scientists to study, journeying to some obscure part of, say, Kazakhstan and returning with a sack of little seed-filled envelopes.

What makes the New Zealanders unusual is their obsession with cow and sheep food. Most of their overseas counterparts hunt the wild relatives of staple crops that people eat, hoping to help breed hardier and more nutritious wheat, maize, sweet potato, cassava and rice. If there is an apocalypse that wipes out all crops, the human survivors will probably make their way to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, where a seed vault has been built in the permafrost to protect the fruits of centuries of agriculture from disaster. But a starving cow would be better off trotting down to Palmerston North and breaking into the impressive grass library.

The Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, 15 minutes’ walk from the city, on the Grasslands campus of Crown-owned company AgResearch, holds 114,000 seed samples in a climate-controlled storeroom. Most of the collection is seeds from various breeds of pasture, mostly grass and clover, which our cows and sheep helpfully convert into lucrative meat and milk exports.

Facing extinction

Centre director Kioumars Ghamkar estimates that white clover alone contributes $5 billion a year to the economy. Ryegrass supplies another $15 billion. Few of the species our farmers rely on are native. This leaves us a little vulnerable. The plants that originally spawned our pasture live wild around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, but they may not survive there forever. The Global Crop Diversity Trust says based on current trends, up to half of plant species may face extinction in the wild. Webber and Williamson don’t need reminding. When they were last in Russia, in August, they arrived at one plant’s last-known habitat only to find it had been swallowed up by an urban park.

Typically, a seed-hunting mission begins with a map and a plant atlas. The world map at the Margot Forde Centre has rings around promising areas of biodiversity, some of them yet to be visited by seed collectors. The centre can afford one or two trips a year, so the hunters prioritise according to the places that will best fill the biggest gaps in their collection, and which countries will grant them permits.

Not every country shares its genetic resources. Here, native seeds are considered a taonga, and only released from a special, sealed collection when needed for replenishing wild populations or conservation research. Several other countries used to welcome foreign collectors, but baulked after dubious operators, known as bio-pirates, took seeds without permission and patented the products, says Ghamkar. Trusting the folk you find combing paddocks, making num-num-moo sounds, requires faith.

Once he has his paperwork sorted, Webber will send a wishlist of species to a group of local collaborators, who devise a driving route. Getting his trusty team together “is like meeting up with old friends”, says Webber. When in Russia, he always travels with botanists from the St Petersburg-based Vavilov Institute, which has the distinction of being the first in what is now a world-wide network of 1700 crop gene banks. Most times, he also flies in a friendly Australian plant-identification whizz, Josephine Piggin. Piggin was once, very courteously, detained in Turkey after police grew suspicious of her seed-scouting activities. (“They made her lots of cups of tea,” says Williamson.) The final expedition member is a young American historian, Courtney Fullilove, who is writing a book about the cross-border flow of plant genetic material. Fullilove doubles as the team’s soil pH-tester, recorder of soil salt levels, and scribe of other important details about the collection sites.

The past three trips, Webber has also taken his Palmerston North seed-store workmate, Williamson, so she can learn about seed collecting. The team pile into two matching white vans, enormous oblong people-­movers that look ancient, although Williamson insists they are quite new. The Russian vans proved surprisingly good at handling the steep ravines of the Altai Mountains, and Webber only feared death once.

“There was one bit when the road was really narrow and we all thought we were going to die. I was in the front passenger seat and could look straight down a cliff,” he says. This was his 16th collecting trip. Each time he returns from an expedition, he tells Williamson he’s never going again. “Then I start planning the next one.”

Ice-age herbivores

Not much has changed, climatically speaking, in the Altai Mountains since the last ice age. The region at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia and China has lost its mammoths, but it still harbours ice-age herbivores such as reindeer, horses and saiga antelope, lately joined by free-ranging domestic cattle and sheep. Pasture flourishes in the chilly, arid climate, and the alpine streams flow straight from the glaciers. Seed hunters have to pack light, as they need to carry tents, sleeping bags, clothes and equipment. Since there are few showers and no washing machines to speak of, Webber and the others used the streams to freshen up.

“I was freezing my butt off. But when you’re in these alpine streams, you can take the opportunity to clean your undies and your socks and you can have those sitting over the seat of your van drying during the day. You don’t want to take a set of clothes for each of the 14 days.” Unsurprisingly, the close proximity led to a few small blow-ups. “You’re in a confined space and you’re outside your comfort zone and you’re working seven days a week for 12-14 hours a day. You’re not eating properly and you’re sleeping in a tent,” says Webber. Like a rock band on tour, the crew quickly learnt when it was time to give a team member space.

Each time they spot a promising patch of pasture, the collectors park, jump out and gather seeds for drying and cleaning later that night. Under New Zealand biosecurity laws, they are prohibited from bringing in dirt and other extraneous material. Even the seeds are allowed in only under a special dispensation. In Russia, in August, they plucked from 700 miniature populations, stopping the vans 56 times and picking a variety of species at each stop.

At the end of the trip, they split the stash with the local botanists, who use the Kiwi-funded journey to plug gaps in their collection. Ghamkar is convinced that both the host and visiting countries benefit from collecting journeys, and as a result he has been persuasive in his efforts to convince other countries to help. The Russian connection was the work of his predecessor, but he is charming new countries. One day, he hopes to broker a visit by New Zealand to his birth country of Iran. “I am from there, I don’t want to see Iran hurt by this, but these are international treasures,” he says.

“In some of these countries, the habitats are already being degraded. We don’t have the funding to go and help, say, Morocco to keep growing that plant in that area, but we can go and collect the seeds and keep them here,” he says. “If they want to go and regenerate the species later, they can have them back. We are not going to say they are ours.”

Once back in Palmerston North, the team breed seeds from each variety inside contained mesh-wrapped gardens until they have at least 100 of each variant. That is enough to ensure genetic diversity, and also to share a portion with another gene bank if they ask for it. Many national centres swap seeds freely, and they make samples available to bona fide researchers who want to explore breeding crops from them.

In Palmerston North, the seeds go into a dry room, which looks like a super­market’s walk-in beer chiller. There they can stay fresh for at least 20 years – and up to a century – before they need replanting. “We have some cultivars from 1940 that are still viable,” says Ghamkar.

The fridge that stores the seeds is locked, but it is not a fortress. On starting his job as director last year, Ghamkar was horrified to learn that New Zealand did not have a back-up collection in Svalbard, the doomsday vault on an island off Norway, which is built to withstand even nuclear winter. “Even North Korea has a deposit there,” he says.

He and his team spent nine months deciding which species would be the worst to lose, and this year Ghamkar carried a selection to stash under the permafrost. Svalbard is a safety box. The coffers have been cracked open only once, to replenish an important seed collection that was lost when fighting overran a gene bank in Aleppo, Syria. Our grasses and clovers will remain there, sealed, just in case a fire or earthquake should wipe out the Margot Forde Centre.

“We are humans, anything can happen,” says Ghamkar. “If there’s a fire in this centre, we lose the history of agriculture in New Zealand.” The Svalbard guardians are not there to breed plants or study the riches in their genes. All of the active research on new crops happens in the smaller gene banks.

Russian Nikolai Vavilov. Photo/Alamy

Tough genes

The first modern seed vault was started by Russian Nikolai Vavilov, who founded his cache in 1921 to broaden the genetic diversity of food. He wanted to end famines by supplying tough genes from wild crops, to make commercial crops more drought- and disease-resistant. He scoured several countries for the wild cousins of such staples as wheat, rye and potatoes and secured them in his institute in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). The institute nearly didn’t make it through World War II. Several of its workers starved to death during the long Nazi siege of Leningrad, because they refused to eat their stockpiled seeds. Vavilov also died of starvation, in 1943, imprisoned in a gulag, after he and his ideas about plant breeding fell out of favour with Stalin.

Today, people see Vavilov as a visionary. A coalition of governments, charities and food researchers has set about trying to widen the genes available, on the basis that too much genetic similarity makes the food supply vulnerable. But, at the same time, people’s diets around the world are growing more homogenous, as we get more and more calories from a few super-productive staples.

Then there is climate change, which makes the quest urgent. The Crop Diversity Trust says that, since it takes about 10 years to produce a new crop variety, the dramatically different climate conditions predicted for many places in 2030 are a mere two breeding cycles away. In New Zealand, Niwa projections are that drought frequency in eastern and northern regions could double or even triple by 2040, while other places become warmer and wetter. Some places on the planet may become more productive at growing food by the end of the century. But overall, climate change is expected to shrink the yields from food sources globally, even while the population grows. Meanwhile, changes in temperature and rainfall may enable new pests and diseases to strike.

Quickly, the wild-seed hunt has started to home in on extreme plants. If a plant can survive with little water or in flood conditions, it may thrive in a future climate. Even if a wild crop is unsuitable for eating, it can be crossed with other varieties to ­produce drought-tolerant, nitrogen-efficient or heat-hardy hybrids. “We have thousands of varieties and only use a handful,” says Ghamkar.

A love story

If you think breeding super-crops sounds clinical, let Ghamkar tell you a love story. Actually, it is the story of an arranged marriage, albeit a beneficial one. White clover – the crop that makes New Zealand $5 billion a year – was genetically traced by AgResearch scientists back to its distant ancestors. These ancient clovers turned out to be very different creatures from the spoilt plants we know today. They also turned out to be living so far apart that it was a wonder they had ever dated. “They discovered a father and a mother,” says Ghamkar. “One is in the mountains of Azerbaijan, the other is on the beaches of Portugal, so thousands of kilometres away.”

Somehow, long ago, these ancient populations grew close enough to produce offspring. “Maybe on the Greek beaches they decided to get married. We don’t know. But they met and made a species,” says Ghamkar. “The parents are now very different individuals, living in different altitudes, different soil types and different climates.” Yet, with some firm persuasion, the researchers managed to entice the long-lost lovers to breed again. “Normally, these crosses are sterile. But when we save the embryo in the lab, with extra nutrition and care, there will be some individuals who survive, and those ones will be able to regenerate,” says Ghamkar. The hybrid resulting from the pairing is “not exactly white clover, but it looks 80% the same”, he says.

Under the surface, however, lies a crucial difference. “Today’s white clover is a pampered child, with shallow roots and lots of leaves. It has grown up in a five-star hotel, living on farms in New Zealand and the UK. Whereas on the beaches of Portugal and mountains of Azerbaijan, there is no five-star hotel, so they are living in a hostile environment,” he says. “When you cross [wild plants], you bring back the resistance and persistence genes. And that’s what you need when the climate starts to change, maybe in Gisborne or Canterbury.” Versions of the hybrid clover are being ­trialled on farms to see how they perform. The verdicts aren’t in yet,  but ­“initial results show deeper roots, better drought tolerance and less phosphorus use”, he says. “This is the ­benefit when you go back to the ancestors and find their good genes.”

So many journeys

While crop breeders work, Webber will keep on collecting. Many of the clovers secured in gene banks globally are there because of his efforts, and those of Williamson, Piggin and others. Webber might have to do the odd cow impression, but mostly he finds it remarkable how readily people in Russia and elsewhere accept him.

“They probably think we are pretty weird. But once you explain to people in villages what you are actually doing, they are really supportive and interested for you to take the material,” he says. “They know well enough that they have all this great stuff sitting there, and they’ll say, ‘Please take it away and make something better for the world.’ These are really poor people saying this,” he says. “It is quite surprising for me.”

After so many journeys, Webber admits he might be cynical to be surprised at encountering such generosity. But he wonders what he would make of it if, say, a Russian version of him suddenly popped up in his neighbourhood. “It kind of challenges you as to what you would think if someone bolted over your fence and was near your home picking flowers, whether you’d show the same kind of view of the world.”

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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