Unity College research offers guidance on crop diversity

The way a buckwheat variety is planted in China has lessons for organic farms in Maine

UNITY, Maine – Research by a Unity College professor shows how farmers using traditional seed saving methods conserve important genetic resources.

Dr. Mary Saunders Bulan, assistant professor of sustainable agricultural enterprise in the Center for Sustainability and Global Change at Unity College, spent time interviewing farmers and researching how they plant tartary buckwheat in China as part of her doctoral research.

Her findings, published in the forthcoming edition of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, contribute information about on-the-farm genetic diversity of a valuable but underutilized crop, and demonstrate the importance of local geography and traditional culture in the conservation of crop genetic resources.

“The study demonstrates the importance of local seed systems and farmer agency in preservation and maintenance of an important regional crop,” Bulan said. “It’s interesting that, although this crop is not widely used for food, it was once used rather widely by Acadian people in Maine hundreds of years ago.”

Bulan said she is interested in translating her findings for use in Maine’s burgeoning organic farm movement, “to help those who may be interested in starting or helping to develop organic seed production in Maine.”

Although tartary buckwheat isn’t widely used, it’s one of approximately 300,000 species of plants that could hold keys for providing food and enhancing genetic diversity. She called seed saving “one of the strategies for resilience in agriculture, and for making better use of diversity in plant kingdom.”

Because no companies sell tartary buckwheat seeds, “part of the study was to understand what the diversity on the ground actually looks like for a traditional crop where farmers have been saving varieties and seeds for centuries.”

“For this particular crop, it’s a completely informal seed system. How much genetic diversity exists on the ground is totally dependent on that system.”

From the standpoint of genetic resources conservation, the presence of a culturally rich farmer exchange network and hierarchical structuring of tartary buckwheat genetic diversity in Yunnan Province demonstrates the importance of maintaining an interlinked community of tartary buckwheat farmers in Yunnan, Bulan concludes.

The study obtained its results by extracting DNA and performing molecular genetic analyses in tandem with surveys of farmers.  The project was a collaboration that included Chinese and American students and scientists.

The findings are published in the forthcoming edition of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, in an article titled “Social and environmental influences on tartary buckwheat varietal diversity in Yunnan, China.”

Bulan holds a PhD in Agronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BA in International Relations from Brown University.

About Unity College
Unity College proudly celebrates its 50th year in 2015. The first institution of higher education in the nation to divest from fossil fuel investments, Unity is committed to educating the next generation of environmental professionals. Sustainability science lies at the heart of its educational mission, with 16 environmentally focused undergraduate majors. For more information, visit unity.edu.

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