With the onset of the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, during what is now known as the Neolithic Revolution, humans and crop plants have undergone a convergence of evolutionary development. It is certainly clear that the evolution of our crop plants has been markedly altered as a result of their domestication by humans. In many cases their development has been so changed as to almost obliterate their obvious origins, making many of our crop plants taxonomic nightmares. In turn, the development of crop plants and increases in agricultural technology have permitting explosive growth of populations that no doubt have had a tremendous effect on human evolution. Traits such as swiftness of foot and keenness of eye, once essential to the hunter, may no longer be as relevant to our destiny as traits affecting social behavior and abstract reasoning. The explosive growth of population so far has been paralleled by an explosive growth in food production in most of the world, so far delaying the gloomy predictions of the dour Thomas Malthus.
However, recent advances in agricultural technology have led to a reduction in diversity of our crop plants. Technology and politics have interacted in an unplanned way to exacerbate this trend, and subsidization of surpluses in some crops have retarded the development of alternate crop strategies and reduced diversification. The reliance of human civilization on a handful of crops seems on the face of it perilous, and many, such as Noel Vietmeyer, have expressed their deep concern. Biodiversity has come to be regarded as a talisman to provide insurance against crop disasters from biotic and abiotic factors, as a hedge against depletion of nonrenewable resources such as petroleum, as a way to provide a more sustainable agriculture through their benefits to our ecology, and as a means for improving human welfare by increasing diet diversity and adding valuable pharmacological resources. The dangers of reduced diversity and monoculture become apparent in the United States through natural disasters such as the outbreak of southern corn blight in the l970s, gray mold in l995, and drought in the great plains in the winter of 1995/96.
However, the success of soybean in the United States and canola in Canada and the emergence of new crop candidates in the last decade, such as cactus fruit, crambe, meadowfoam, Oriental vegetables, pearl millet, and Taxus (for Taxol), underscore the possibility of Biodiversity Engineering as an emerging agricultural field. Could it be that we new croppers are the vanguard of a new agricultural movement? We have competition from proponents of new uses for old crops and biotechnologists, both proposing approaches that might reduce rather than expand diversity. Yet both of these concepts can be shown to be compatible with the new crops movement, because both new uses technology and biotechnology are necessary techniques to expand the economic usefulness of new crops and to adapt them quickly. As Abraham Lincoln said in another context: "We are not enemies, but friends."
With the publication of this third volume on new crops, a case can be made that the progress and problems and rational for new crops has been well articulated. Where do we go from here? The position paper Diversifying U.S. Crop Production (see page 98) has made the case for increased federal involvement in new crop research and development and proposes the creation of a "Jeffersonian Initiative," in honor of the personal commitment of Thomas Jefferson to improve American agriculture through the development of new crops. It proposes a Jefferson Institute of Crop Diversification be established comprised of a national research and development center and a series of cooperative regional centers to address the interlocking problems of breeding, production, utilization and marketing of new and underexploited crops. Peter Felker has independently made the suggestion of a grants program for new crops research.
Exploitation of new crops is not a new and untried technology but rather the continuation of the American tradition of exploration and evaluation of new crop solutions. A very small part of the billions spent for crop subsidies is needed to promote new crops research and development, and at present there is no voice but ours. The Jefferson Initiative proposes the kind of substantial, long-term and coordinated framework necessary for the creation of a successful national strategic program in new crops development. At present the European Economic Community is in the lead in this endeavor as they search for new industrial crops, emphasizing biodiesels. It is clear that a new attitude is needed. As of this moment, the decline in feed grains surpluses, poor yields in l995, and increased demand from China have produced increases in commodity prices. Thus, in the short term, there will be increased demand for traditional crops. The investment of a small part of the expected windfall into a more rational policy to exploit the tremendous diversity that is our heritage and which we have chosen to ignore at our peril would appear to be a wise and prudent investment in the future.