Index | Search | Home | Table of Contents

Janick, J. 1990. Symposium summary. p. 539-540. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Symposium Summary

Jules Janick

The symbol of our symposium, Queen Hetshepsut's fleet bringing back new exotic plants from the Land of Punt, indicates the ancient nature of interest in new crops. Indeed, we are still on that journey, seeking new crops to improve our lives and our fortunes. We wonder what new crops will be carved on our temples to celebrate our present-day expeditions in science and agriculture, in genetics and plant breeding.

My mission here is to summarize the 3-day journey of our New Crops Symposium. I am struck by some self-evident truths.

The search for new crops is a constant theme in the history and prehistory of our species. From Queen Hetshepsut in ancient Egypt-searching for new exotic species-to Columbus in Renaissance Europe—searching for a short route to the spice rich east Indies-to Noel Vietmeyer, who spoke movingly about underexploited tropical crops.

The crops that sustain us on this planet were selected and genetically altered in prehistory by our neolithic ancestors. Is it really possible that they made the best choice? How strange that the staff of life selected independently over the world—wheat in the Fertile Crescent rice in the Far East and maize in the New World—are all members of the same botanical family—Poaceae (formerly Gramineae). These crops are celebrated with prayers: "Give us this day our daily bread," and are consumed with chants from priests as they transubstantiate to the flesh of our Gods. We sprinkle rice on our newlyweds to grant them fertility and good fortune.

But, we also know that these sustainers of life are nutritionally inadequate—deficient in amino acid balance and vitamins-and culinarily boring. Our quest for new crops has been never-ending—fruits and herbs, spices and medicinals—fibers—feeds—and fragrances. We continue to be unsatisfied because we must feed more and more people and we must sustain a better livelihood for our farmers. This symposium is about the efficiency of this quest. It is clear that we need to develop a theory of new crop development. Our ancestors left no records. We don't know how they did it and we have been struggling ever since.

We do know from this symposium that successful development of new crops involves market forces and economics, the decisive discipline to economists and the dismal science to the rest of us. The speakers have underscored the concept that new crop development must include a partnership between scientists, farmers, industry, academia, and government. Easily said, but hard to achieve. It is also clear that a key figure is a crop champion, many of which are attending this symposium.

We recognize that new crop development involves botany, agronomy forestry, and horticulture and thousands of species and thousands of scientist-years. We appreciate that germplasm exploration and preservation as well as plant breeding efforts is an integral part of the process.

A number of unresolved questions remain:

Do we, as a nation, spend our limited resources in agricultural science on improving our present crops or do we search out completely new crops? Our enthusiastic biotechnologist colleagues (and funding competitors) told us that they can improve our present-day crops with the transfer of "value-added" genes. They counsel patience and assure us that if they get the funding, success is only a decade away. Can we rely on their expectations?

Is a better strategy to reach out to underexploited crops, those remnants of past cultures, as movingly related by Noel Vietmeyer. Can it be that the most backward and impoverished peoples, the flotsam and jetsam of modern civilization, hold the key for our future survival on a crowded and dirty planet. That must be the supreme irony of development.

On the other hand, should we start from scratch, screen the world's flora, and aided by the biochemist's bag of tricks locate the molecules we need to provide a renewable resource for strategic materials formerly provided by the petrochemical industry. This approach assumes that the 10,000 years of selection received by our basic food crops can be compressed with a score of years-or less. Does this technique expect too much from plant breeders?

We do know that we can make substantial progress, but that in the case of new crops the difficulty of the task is inversely proportional to the value of the product on a unit basis.

For truly expensive crops such as landscape ornamentals or floral crops (we gladly pay $35 for a dozen blooms or a single pot when the occasion demands)—the search for, and development of new crops is a standard practice expected, even demanded by the trade; I point to Alstromeria, Plumaria, Anthurium, and Gerbera.

For valuable fruits, nuts, and vegetables there are examples of success in 1 or 2 human generations. Fueled by prices of $1 to $3 a pound, we can point to such successes as kiwifruit and broccoli. The U.S. has, in less than a generation, become the second country in the world in pistachio production.

But, for crops whose unit value is low, 5-10 cts per pound—despite the fact that the value of millions of acres will yield millions, even billions, of dollars—efforts to displace established crops with their infrastructure of growers, processors, and marketing agencies has been and will continue to be extremely difficult. We can point to great successes in new crops but the time span is long. Soybeans in the United States is our best example as is the recent transformation of rapeseed to canola in Canada, but it is not at all clear if we can dislodge our major cereals. To some, even new crops such as soybeans and Hevea seems so well entrenched that they suggest we should not even try to replace them. Many disagree. This is what makes new crops exciting.

Moved by the needs of hungry peoples and worried by the plight of frustrated farmers, we press forward. We are both buoyed by the successes of the past, and concerned and made skittish by our many failures as we seek new options in agriculture. In a sense, the purpose of this symposium has been to seek a support system among ourselves to share experiences, exchange information-and perhaps to trade exaggerations.

This conference has served its purpose if it has, indeed provided a forum to discuss the status and future of new crops development The results will be archived in this proceedings. However, the impact will be minimum and short-lived unless we are successful in creating a more substantial and continuing presence to move politicians and affect research policy and funding.

Last update March 31, 1997 aw