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TESS VIGELAND: Curators from international seed banks are meeting outside Washington today. These so-called banks store the seeds of thousands of crop varieties from around the world. Most of which will never see a supermarket shelf.
But as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.
SAM EATON: I'm in a tiny Southern Arizona town called Patagonia. And it's hot. About 107 degrees today. The hills around me are parched and brown. But the field I'm standing in pulses with life.
Suzanne Nelson is conservation director for Native Seeds/SEARCH. It's a nonprofit that saves and distributes seeds from ancient Southwest crops like maize, beans and sunflowers.
Many of the plants now thriving on this 60-acre seed farm are the same ones southwest Indians cultivated here long before Columbus.
SUZANNE NELSON: This is a brown Tepary bean. It's got a pretty large tap root. And the leaves will actually fold up on each other so they're shading each other and preventing water loss through the leaf surfaces.
Qualities that enabled these early crops to survive in the hot Southwest deserts. But today they may hold even more value.
Nelson says plant breeders are racing to craft new seeds that can withstand the heat waves and diseases of a warmer planet. And some of the genes in these ancient heirloom crops may hold the answer.
Peter Bretting is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plant gene bank program.
PETER BRETTING: We have found genes for resistance to diseases or insects in genetic materials where we would not have suspected it to be until we tested them.
Bretting says the world's enormous diversity of heirloom crops is like a vast library of unopened books.
Unfortunately, scientists like Bretting may never have a chance to study many of them. That's because farmers across the world are swapping out regional varieties for only a handful of high yielding crops sold by international seed companies.
Gary Nabhan is author of "Where Our Food Comes From."
GARY NABHAN: Globally, we are losing crop varieties as fast as we ever have.
Take apples. Back in the pioneer days the U.S. had more than 7,000 named varieties. Today that number has fallen to around 300.
The USDA's Peter Bretting says once those seeds are gone . . .
BRETTING: You lose another tool out of your toolbox. You lose another option.
Freezing seeds in special vaults is a way to ensure that doesn't happen. Even Native Seeds maintains one at its Tucson headquarters.
These so-called "seed banks" serve as an important source of genetic material for scientists, and even for international seed companies. But Gary Nabhan says Native Seeds' primary mission, saving seeds in fields rather than vaults, is the one that matters the most.
NABHAN: Plant breeders cannot breed new varieties adapted to hotter conditions rapidly enough to keep up with the pace of climate change. And so the more varieties we have adapted and being adapted in fields as opposed to being frozen in time in a seed bank, the better off we are.
On the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, Native Seeds' vision is being realized.
JANET HASKIE: This is all beans. They're called buv. They're beans that you can see, they're flowered, and they're just about ready to put on their little pod.
Seventy-five-year-old Janet Haskie grows traditional Indian varieties of bean, melon and maize. Native Seeds supplies the seeds free of charge.
Haskie says there's a big difference between these seeds and the ones she's ordered from mainstream catalogues.
HASKIE: They survive!
She has childhood memories of her father growing these same crops. The seeds passed down and continually adapting from generation to generation -- until the convenience of modern lifestyles and eating habits intervened.
Now, many decades later, Haskie is resurrecting that age old tradition.
HASKIE: We need to start taking care of our seeds and really handling them like they're gold. They're precious.
In southern Arizona, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.