Safeguarding our future

The arid soil on the mile-high Hopi Mesa trickles through clenched fingers like sand. If you visit this isolated corner of northeastern Arizona, you might find it hard to believe it is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas.

For more than 2,000 years, the Hopi and their ancestors have carved a living out of the rough terrain. They survived drought, famine, war, and a fluctuating climate that drove many of their ancient southwestern neighbors elsewhere in search of more fertile lands.

Ancient grains freekeh, amaranth, barley, quinoa, bulgur, millet, and farro. Courtesy Pioneer Press
Ancient grains freekeh, amaranth, barley, quinoa, bulgur, millet, and farro. Courtesy Pioneer Press

One key to the Hopi’s longevity is a variety of drought-tolerant corn they have adapted over the centuries to prosper in the poor soil. That corn and other traditional crops like Tibetan millet could be crucial for survival in places around the world impacted by global climate change.

Washington State University postdoctoral anthropologist Kyle Bocinsky thinks those crops could help Ethiopian farmers survive a warmer, drier future. He is working with WSU archaeologist Jade d’Alpoim Guedes to scour the globe for little-used or in some cases completely forgotten crops that were bred to survive warmer weather, drought, and disease. With the help of sophisticated climate and crop-niche modeling, they are able to determine how these crops grew well in the past and where they might be useful today.

“For millennia, the Hopi cultivated their corn to grow in a high-elevation, low-rainfall terrain. It is more adapted to these types of areas than many genetically modified strains,” says Bocinsky. “The thought struck me that if this ancestral corn variety has grown so well on the Hopi Mesa, what other places in the world would it prosper?”

In Ethiopia, subsistence farmers have been growing ensete ventricosum, the Ethiopian banana, for centuries. A staple food for over 12 million people in the southern highlands of the country, the crops have recently been afflicted by emerging pests, disease, and blasts of intense heat. Many Ethiopian farmers switched to growing varieties of corn cultivated in the midwestern United States. But Iowa corn is not suited to the drought-prone high elevations.

Bocinsky and Guedes decided to see if their modeling could help identify a better alternative.

“Our models showed Hopi corn would grow extremely well in the Ethiopian highlands,” says Bocinsky. “The real benefit is that it is rain-fed and can grow in natural conditions without expensive irrigation, fertilizer, and genetic modifications that the vast majority of these farmers can’t afford.”

In the United States and other wealthy nations, farmers have access to genetically tailored crops, pesticides, and advanced irrigation systems to help ensure their wheat or corn harvest during a bad growing season. Because of this, the variety of crops grown now is a lot smaller than it once was. For most of early history, humans relied on a wide variety of grains to feed themselves. If a millet crop was struck by blight, farmers would still have three or four other options to fall back on. Today, the vast majority of commercial agricultural production is focused on five high-yield crops—wheat, sugarcane, corn, barley, and rice.

In areas where farmers don’t have access to modern technology, growing one or two strains of the “big five crops” can be incredibly risky for subsistence farmers who depend on their harvest for food.

“If you are relying on only a few varieties of crops, you have very little genetic diversity. If you are unlucky and one year the type of fungus to which your crop has no resistance enters your farm, your probability of losing your entire harvest is a lot higher,” says Guedes. “If you are a subsistence farmer in a marginal area, who relies on his harvest to feed the family, it can be catastrophic.”

One such area is the Tibetan Plateau where temperatures have been creeping up to six degrees Celsius higher than they were 200 years ago. Rapid temperature increase is making it difficult for the region’s inhabitants to carry out a key facet of their traditional lifestyle: Yak pastoralism.

Two possible alternatives are foxtail and proso millet which  farmers stopped cultivating on the Tibetan Plateau around 4,000 years ago as global temperatures grew colder.

“These millets are on the verge of becoming forgotten crops,” says Guedes. “But due to their heat tolerance and high nutritional value, and very low rainfall requirements, they may once again be useful resources for a warmer future.”