Martin’s last paper!

Just a month before his death, Martin Wolfe and his long-term colleague Salvatore Ceccarelli submitted what turned out to be the last of Martin’s peer-reviewed scientific papers. It was published just over a year later in July 2020 bringing to end a stream of contributions to learning about agriculture from Martin Wolfe (1937-2019).

Here are their conclusions:

In about the middle of the nineteenth century, agriculture was unwittingly faced with a major dilemma: whether to follow Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (which contained many examples derived from agriculture) or to follow the industrialization of agriculture, exemplified by the contemporary invention of superphosphate fertilizer. The choice made was to follow the industrialization route, probably in part because genetics, the root of evolution, was not understood at that time. Plants and animals survive over long time scales and large areas by generating novel genetic variation, which, if useful, will be selected. Interactions among such populations and with populations of microorganisms lead to high levels of both productivity and stability, without interventions, which should surely be a central goal for agriculture.

Indeed it is widely acknowledged that agrobiodiversity is a key to food security and human health. In our view, it is unfortunate that in relation to both crop plants and livestock, concentration and investment has been focused on specific varieties and breeds rather than on the potential value of genetic complexity both within and among farms. One argument for monoculture development is that such crops can provide a continuous supply of a uniform feedstock for convenient and simplified large-scale production of a processed foodstuff. However, conventional baking tests and artisanal bakers and pasta makers have shown that populations can compete well with monocultures. Considering the increasingly unpredictable climatic conditions of the future and the higher stability and resilience of diversified crop stands under varying conditions, it is highly likely that more reliable qualities will emerge from adaptable populations made from carefully selected parents.