Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 80.djvu/583

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579
THE IMPROVEMENT OF PLANTS

problem in all its phases is a duty that we can not shirk. The high cost of living at the present time and the simpler living that thousands of families have been compelled to adopt is a reminder of the necessity, even to the present generation, of a careful study of the existing conditions.

The problem of all problems confronting us is the necessity of increasing the production of food stuffs. How can this be done? Obviously the problem can be attacked from many sides, but the side that I desire to emphasize is the conservation of the best breeding stock of plants and animals. This seems a simple matter, but I am sure that the far-reaching possibilities of such conservation are not understood and are beyond our conception at the present time, as our viewpoint is necessarily limited by our present knowledge. Nevertheless, as judged by our present knowledge, the possibilities are so great as to place this factor, I believe, among the important features of the conservation movement.

What do we not owe to our domesticated and improved plants and animals? They are the greatest heritage that has come down to us from our ancestors. If the cultivated varieties and breeds of wheat, oats, corn, cotton, potatoes, cattle, sheep, hogs and horses were all destroyed from the earth and we were forced to go back to wild nature and begin the improvement over again, it is probable that the world would be almost depopulated and that the progeny of the few hardy individuals that survived would, in the centuries that followed, repeat the history of plant and animal improvement that has taken place in the past. Doubtless, however, new plants and animals now unknown to us would be the successful ones in the new evolution. That we now cultivate wheat, oats, corn and the like is probably in large measure due to the accident that attempts to artificially cultivate plants started in regions where the wild ancestors of these plants were native.

In many cases the wild ancestors of our cultivated plants are not positively known. It is not probable that the ancestral types have become extinct, but that the cultivated forms have been so greatly modified that the relationship can not now be recognized with certainty. If Ægilops ovata, a wild grass of southern Europe, is the original ancestral form of wheat, as is supposed by some botanists, we have very many native grasses in various parts of the United States, which in an unimproved state have much larger grains and would seem to be equally worthy of cultivation and improvement. If Teosinte (Euclæna luxurians), a wild native grass of Mexico, is the original wild ancestor of corn, as is believed by many scientists because of the fact that it is a native of the region where corn was first cultivated, is known to be subject to the same diseases, such as smut, and above all from the fact that it hybridizes readily with com, we have an unpromising grass, so far as its