In the 17th century, a single tulip bulb could, reportedly, set you back the price of a house. ‘Tulip mania’ – the supposed period in Dutch history when tulips stirred up a frenzy – may now be long over, but with more than 3,000 varieties to choose from, modern-day buyers are clearly still searching for something special.
Commercial growers around the world are facing an uncertain future, however. Be they tulip farmers or cotton producers, the increasing spread of plant pests and diseases – exacerbated by climate unpredictability – poses new and increasing risks to crop production.
Today’s crops are usually very uniform, both to look at and also at the genetic level. This lack of diversity permits new or unfamiliar diseases to spread like wildfire because they are less likely to encounter genetic barriers to their proliferation. Such low diversity brings a weakened ability to adapt to new conditions – a worrying premise in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
So how can we secure our food, horticultural, clothing and medicinal crops against future environmental challenges?
The answer lies in wild plant populations. Not bred for uniformity, wild populations naturally contain greater diversity than their cultivated cousins. Crucially, this means that individual plants will be more likely to exhibit the genetic characteristics that can prevent a disease from taking hold.