Among the most recent additions to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault -- a repository located deep inside a Norwegian mountain some 600 miles from the Arctic Circle that's designed to safeguard the world's botanical gene pool -- is wheat from Tajikistan, where the harsh environment has created a particularly hardy strain of the plant. From a story that first appeared on the Salt, NPR's food blog:
Every seed that arrived this week has its own story. The shipment included seeds from a barley variety that came to the U.S. from Poland in 1938, and from a kind of amaranth collected from a small farm in Ecuador in 1979.
It also included the first seeds from Tajikistan — a small mountainous slice of the former Soviet Union, just north of Afghanistan.
To find out more about those seeds, I called Alexey Morgounov. He's a Russian who now lives in Turkey,and works for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
When you go to Tajikistan, Morgounov says, you'll see something you can't find most other places: farmers still planting and harvesting the same kinds of wheat that their ancestors have grown for thousands of years.
"People don't want to give up growing them," he says, because they know that those traditional varieties of wheat are the key to making bread with exactly the taste and texture that they want.
Homemade bread, from homegrown wheat, is the centerpiece of life in Tajikistan, Morgounov says. People there get half of all their calories from it.
And when they leave home, they like to take some along with them.
"They always bring this homemade bread to me," he says. "They take a plane from Duchanbe to Istanbul, with Turkish Airlines, and they know that there is breakfast, and drinks, and bread. They still take some flat breads, just in case."
Morgounov says he and his fellow plant breeders have changed their tune in recent years, when it comes to the old varieties. A few decades ago, they encouraged farmers to replace them with modern, more productive kinds of wheat.
Now, he says, he's more likely to work with those older lines of wheat, using traditional techniques to improve them, but keeping as much as possible. The goal is to preserve them in the fields, and not just in gene banks.