By Donella Meadows
–May 23, 1991–
The field botanist Hugh Iltis is best known as the discoverer of teosinte — the wild ancestor of the modern corn that feeds much of the world. Iltis, the Director of the University of Wisconsin Herbarium, has many more botanical discoveries to his credit, each of them, in his eyes, an argument for thinking hard about the human rush to “develop” wild places. One of the stories he tells to make his point is of the scrubby wild tomato he found in Peru.
Iltis and his colleagues took their jeep as far as they could along an old Inca road in a wild valley in the Andes. When they ran out of road, they went on hiking. “All around us was a floristic wonderland, full of rare and beautiful plants. These inter-Andean valleys are veritable islands, isolated from other valleys by wet tropical forests below and cold tundra above — a situation favoring biodiversity.”
Iltis says there are at least 30,000 kinds of Peruvian plants, “a flora so rich it staggers the imagination.” For comparison, the northeastern U.S. is much larger than Peru but has only about 5,000 plant species.
As the scientists hiked, they collected. Their standard practice was to take five specimens of each plant — one each for herbariums in Lima, Wisconsin, and Washington D.C., and two extra to send to scientists who specialize in that particular plant family. Botanists around the world regularly do that for each other.
Eventually Iltis noticed a “tangled, yellow-flowered, sticky-leaved, ratty-looking wild tomato” that he had never seen before. In addition to the usual five pressed plant samples, he gathered about two dozen of its small green-and-white-striped fruits. He smashed the fruits, dried the seeds and entered the little tomato into his notebook under the serial number 832.
When Iltis got home, he mailed the seeds to Professor Charles Rick of the University of California, a tomato geneticist. Other than a thank-you note, he heard nothing more from Rick for 14 years.
By that time Iltis had almost forgotten tomato 832, but Rick had been putting it to good use. He had identified it as a completely new tomato species. Only seven had been known before; now there were nine — Iltis had brought back another from that same expedition. Rick also discovered that the fruits of 832 were unusually high in soluble solids, especially sugars — a finding of great interest to the tomato industry.
Rick began crossing Number 832 with commercial tomatoes. After 10 years of backcrossing, he finally produced new strains with larger fruit, greater color, and best of all, a soluble solid content as high as 8.6 percent — as opposed to a normal tomato’s 4 to 6 percent.
Wrote Rick to Iltis: “A number of years ago an expert estimated that each 0.5 percent increase in soluble solids would be worth about a million dollars. Greatly improved flavor is another benefit. I thought you might be interested in this use of your valuable collection and want to thank you again for your trouble and foresight in sharing it with us.”
Iltis guesses that, adjusting for inflation, tomato 832 must be worth about 8 million dollars a year. The expedition that found it cost the National Science Foundation $21,000 and discovered not just that tomato, but over 1,000 other plants now documented in the world’s herbaria. “Perhaps the most significant values stemming from our expedition are yet to come,” Iltis says, “possibly from potatoes we collected, or from the hundreds of bits of botanical information we passed along to colleagues. But, as in the case of our tomato, collected in 1962, commercially utilized a decade later, and not published as a new species until 1976, the practical value of an organism can often not be recognized except after years of work.”
Funding to map the biological richness of our planet is falling woefully behind the loss of that richness, as logging, farming, ranching, roadbuilding, and settlements move into the few remaining wild places. We have no idea what we are losing. We don’t even know how many species of life there are, much less how many are being destroyed. Biologists guess that somewhere between 10 and 100 species are being pushed to extinction every DAY.
Those numbers push Hugh Iltis into fits of outrage: “I have no patience with the phony request of developers, economists, and humanitarians who want us biologists to ‘prove’ with hard evidence, right here and now, the value of biodiversity and the harm of tropical deforestation. Rather, it should be for them, the sponsors of reckless destruction, to prove to the world that a plant or animal or an exotic ecosystem is NOT useful and NOT ecologically significant before being permitted to destroy it.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991