Producer Anne Marie Ruff travels with plant explorer Stefano Padulosi as he wanders through Turkmenistan collecting fast-disappearing food plants.
CURWOOD: Many of our food crops have been cultivated for thousands of years. Traditional methods of plant domestication often incorporate wild plants that tend to promote genetic diversity. This helps increase heartiness and disease resistance. But with more industrial farming these days, wild varieties of seeds are disappearing fast. So, some scientists have made it their business to travel the world to search for, and conserve, these wild plants. Anne-Marie Ruff has this report from Turkmenistan.
RUFF: Stefano Padulosi has travelled from his native Italy to dozens of countries to collect plants and seeds. They are then conserved by an international network of research institutes. He's used to tough situations in the field. Here, in the mountains of Turkmenistan, that form the border with Iran, he and his colleagues frequently have to push-start their ancient Russian-made van.
[Man grunting "Bah!' and slamming a van door. Encouraging (non-English) words as the engine sputters. "Ahh!" of triumph as the motor catches.
RUFF: But he considers it a small price to pay, in order to see this place.
PADULOSI: I think this is actually, like in a paradise.
RUFF : These remote mountains feel like paradise, because of the incredible richness of plants that have evolved here.
PADULOSI: So, we are now sitting in one of the most important center of origin of major agriculture crops. Pear, for apple, for fig, pistachio, for pomegranate, and many other vegetables, like onions, we saw wild onions, wild garlic today.
RUFF: Stefano and his colleagues take every opportunity to taste the rich diversity.
WOMAN: ""Mmmm!" PADULOSI: "I got some blackberry." WOMAN: "Oh?" PADULOSKI: "Yeah, immature. But when they're ripe, they're black. Very nice."
[Sniffing other plants) PADULOSKI: "Wild grape." OTHER RESEARCHER: "This is grape? Wild grape? Really?
RUFF: Stefano's favorite is the field of salad greens at his feet.
PADULOSI: Yes, this is a very big, wild-spread population of Rucola, Ruca Sativa, which is "rocket," in English.
RUFF: Even though Stefano is an old hat at plant exploration, his passion for discovering plants is undiminished.
PADULOSI: I love this. Do you know how much I love this. You see, I like it so much! Mmm! Great!
RUFF: But the real object of Stefano's mission is pomegranate, a ruby-red fruit full of juicy seeds that first evolved in these semi-arid mountains. And Stefano's guide in this mission is Dr. Gregory Levin, a Russian scientist, who's been collecting wild and cultivated pomegranates for the last 40 years.
LEVIN: [Speaks in Russian) . TRANSLATOR: I have surveyed the Caucauses, including Azerbijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and Central Asia including Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgistan, and Turkmenistan. Because of my work, the pomegranate collection has increased in size by fifteen times.
RUFF: During the golden era of Soviet science, the collection was used not only for conservation, but to breed better pomegranates, which are widely produced in central Asia and the Middle East. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dr. Levin's work, and the pomegranate collection, have been orphaned, as their national funding was simply eliminated. So with the help of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Stefano has come to Turkmenistan, with Messoud Mars, a pomegranate expert from Tunisia.
MARS: [Speaking foreign language]
TRANSLATOR: My dream is now a reality. I always think about this wild population of pomegranate, and collect plant material, and now, I'm doing that. I'm very happy.
[Brushing, crushing sounds of plant gathering]
RUFF: Messoud takes samples of these wild pomegranates, to conserve them in his Tunisian gene bank. He will also use them to breed varieties that are hardier.
MARS: I'm collecting fruits of these wild pomegranates, considered by Dr. Levin as resistant to cracking.
RUFF: Cracking spoils the fruit. So Dr. Levin's knowledge about genes that can prevent cracking is crucial. But Dr. Levin is retired now, and there's no one prepared to take his place at his institute. So his new relationships, with Messoud and Stefano, are crucial to ensuring that Levin's knowledge about the collection, and the locations of wild populations, won't be lost. There's no road to the biggest stand of wild pomegranates, but Dr. Levin knows the way, since he has been monitoring these trees for the last 30 years.
[Foot-falls on fruit-tree tuff)
LEVIN: "Yah, I never expected to find such a big forest of pomegramates....It's quite difficult to get through"
RUFF: But Dr. Levin says the jungle Stefano sees may not look the same 30 years from now.
LEVIN: [Speaking in foreign language]
TRANSLATOR: But you can see that human activity has caused great damage, destroyed vegetation. So now, many species are endangered here.
RUFF: As these trees die, they are not replaced because herds of sheep and cattle eat the seedlings. This kind of damage, referred to as "genetic erosion," is happening not only with pomegranates, but with nearly every other food crop in the world. Wild varieties of crops, that contain some of the most valuable genes for hardiness and disease resistance are disappearing nearly as fast as plant and animal species in the world's rain forests. But, as always, Stefano is optimistic.
PADULOSI: There are good chances that what you see here, all this wild vegetation, wild population, will be better protected and maintained.
RUFF: Stefano is hoping to secure funding to allow Turkmen and international scientists to protect wild populations, along with collections, like Dr. Levin's. While genetic erosion is already occurring, Stefano thinks it's not too late to conserve important diversity.
PADULOSI: I think, coming to central Asia, like, really, a jump into the past. You are able to see diversity that has been lost a long time ago, in other places.
RUFF: For Messoud, that diversity is almost enough to keep him from returning to his native Tunisia.
MARS: [Speaking in a foreign language)
TRANSLATOR I don't want to go back. Because this is his world, the pomegranate world. The Lost World of the Pomegranate.
RUFF: For Living on Earth, this is Anne-Marie Ruff, in Kara Kala, Turkmenistan.
MARS: Rocket. This is a whole rocket!
[Music up and under: anonymous Turkish Musicians "Instrumental Remix."]
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