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Origin of Agriculture May be Key to Future Food Security

Dec 15, 2014 01:21 PM EST
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The origin of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago may be key to the world's future food security, according to new research.

With the global human population fast approaching unsustainable levels and showing no signs of stopping, providing food for a whopping 11 billion people will undoubtedly be difficult. So understanding why the first arable farmers chose to domesticate some cereal crops and not others could provide valuable insight necessary for our survival.

"Before humans learnt how to farm, our ancestors ate a much wider variety of grasses. If we can understand what traits have made some grasses into good crops then we can look for those characteristics in other plants and perhaps identify good candidates for future domestication," Dr. Catherine Preece from the University of Sheffield, who led the study, said in a statement.

Wheat and barley, for example, are two staple crops still cultivated today, originating in the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land in western Asia from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.

By studying wild relatives of these types of current crop plants, researchers were able to identify two key characteristics that make them advantageous. Firstly, they have bigger seeds which means they can soak up more light and nutrients compared to other plant seeds. And second, as adult plants they are less bushy than other grasses and pack their big seeds onto fewer stems. This way farmers can grow more of them close together in fields.

The research team has been growing these plants in greenhouses, but next plans to conduct experiments in their natural environment - in experimental fields in Turkey, the heart of the Fertile Crescent.

This way, researchers can more accurately determine crucial factors involved in making a crop successful.

"To shape the future we must understand the past," Preece added, "so the more we can discover about the origins of agriculture, the more information we will have to help us tackle the challenges that face modern day food production."

The findings were presented Dec. 11 at the joint British Ecological Society/French Ecological Society meeting in Lille, France.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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