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Plant for the future

Photo of brilliantly-colored quinoa
WSU scientists are helping farmers in Ecuador, Malawi and Rwanda grow diverse quinoa crops, learning news ways to innovate agriculture.

Somewhere in the dryland wilds of eastern Washington, Michael Neff and his wife stop the car.

“I’ve always wanted to hike these dunes,” he says to her. “I could not believe the grasses that were stabilizing those dunes!” Neff says later. He refuses to identify where, exactly, the dunes in question are located. “It’s those little pockets of diversity that we need to identify and preserve,” he explains, almost—but not quite—apologetic.

Trained as a botanist and now a professor of molecular biology at Washington State University, Neff expands on why this is important: “If we’re going to be resilient in the face of climate change—or whatever the world is going to throw at us—we need those genetic resources.”

We often think large swaths of rainforest or savannah need preserving. Small corners of the Palouse and elsewhere also need protection, Neff says. “The giant cedars on top of Moscow Mountain, or the abandoned orchards on Steptoe Butte, where a supposedly extinct apple variety was rediscovered. Or old graveyards,” where native plants find their last refuge.

Increasingly, global warming is driving extreme climatic variability, bringing floods, droughts, and pests, all stressors that plants adapt to, if they are able, with genetic variations. A diverse, local population means there’s a greater chance of an individual member of a species finding an adaptive response to environmental stress—and then passing that adaptation on to its progeny.

And while the Pacific Northwest in the near term will likely be largely shielded from the worst, most dramatic effects of climate change, people in other parts of the world are already living on the knife’s edge. That’s why soil microbiologist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is working on how to bring new life to ancient soils in Malawi, and why growers on a defunct tea plantation in India found new ways of earning a living diversifying their farms. And it’s also why WSU crop researcher Kevin Murphy is hauling seeds to Ecuador and Africa.

Read the full story by Brian Clark in Washington State Magazine.