Forgetting the secrets of ancient crops could threaten our health

What connects the cannabis plant and the cereal wheat? The answer is that while ancient farmers used both, they would have been baffled by modern variants. Chinese farmers first began growing hemp for use in rope, clothing, paper, and other materials. But analyzes of this ancient cannabis have found that it contains relatively insignificant levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main currently known psychoactive ingredient.

The exact date when ancient farm workers discovered and developed the mind-altering properties of the cannabis plant is unknown to us, but the academic consensus is that it may have occurred in Central Asia at least 2,500 years ago. Wheat has had a more direct evolution: its use as a food source is older than agriculture. While we will never know when the first hunter-gatherers baked bread, we do know that they made bread at least 14,000 years ago. Wheat has increased in importance since the first loaf, but has shrunk in size. The much longer fields in ancient hieroglyphs and depicted by early modern artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder are no artistic license: they reflect the reality of the day (although the hieroglyphs exaggerate a bit).

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Both weed and wheat have been refined and improved over time by farmers; this process has greatly accelerated for both since the second world war. During the third agricultural revolution, modern techniques and technological transfers allowed farmers to grow products that were safer, tastier, more durable and more profitable. In the wheat world, the man credited more than anyone else for this transformation is the American agronomist Norman Borlaug. The shorter, more disease-resistant crop he helped develop and promote in Mexico, India and Pakistan is credited with saving more than a billion people worldwide.

A parallel transformation took place in the weed world. Just as Borlaug’s agricultural successors sought to imitate him by developing ever more durable and high-yielding crops, so did his criminal economy counterparts. As a result, street marijuana is stronger and more addictive than 50 years ago and is more likely to cause mental health problems later on.

The greater power and danger of modern cannabis is an indictment of the global effort to combat the harms of drug production and use through criminalization. However, it’s also a challenge for states decriminalizing marijuana, where research has shown that higher potency and higher harm marijuana is still the norm on the street.

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The resilience and reliability of modern wheat and its advances against poverty and hunger are a triumph of globalization. But it also highlights how this process makes us more vulnerable to “surprise” shocks – new diseases or extreme climate events now have the potential to cause more widespread damage to global wheat stocks and other crops than ever before. A more extreme version of this problem has already caused one type of banana to become extinct – in fact, bananas as we know them may well cease to exist by the end of the 21st century.

Part of the answer to both lies in native breeds: cultivated, genetically heterogeneous varieties of flora and fauna that lack many of the advantages of the more dominant varieties, but are a vital part of resilience. The problem is that local races are single club golfers: they may be more resistant to a certain disease or better at surviving certain manifestations of climate crises, but they may also be more vulnerable to most diseases. And just as modern cannabis is becoming more addictive, part of the reason why the most common varieties of certain flora and fauna have become so common is that they taste better.

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The good news is that we can build up resistance fairly easily. We know what works to preserve local varieties – grants for farmers, funding for seed banks and botanical researchers. However, there is more funding for farmers and laboratories in richer countries, while poorer countries often focus heavily on cheap grain today, not on food security tomorrow, for obvious reasons. But ensuring food security and protecting plant varieties faces a challenge: Like most disaster prevention, it requires spending money in the here and now for a crisis that may never come. Unlike artificial intelligence or nuclear threats, agriculture isn’t particularly dramatic or politically sexy. However, anyone looking to “save humanity” or build resilience to long-term risks should be as concerned about local races as the ChatGPT chatbot.

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