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Home gardens in Central Asia are "living genebanks"

Central Asia is a significant producer of some of the world’s most widely consumed delicacies, including walnuts, apricots, plums, apples, and pears. Many of these crops are grown in home gardens in Central Asia’s rural landscapes and provide a living for growers.

In a new study from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), researchers have found that home gardens in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an average of 40 to 50 years old, with some gardens more than 70 years old. In Tajikistan, these gardens have saved lives.

“These trees have been vital for people to survive during times of conflict, and these home gardens with trees and vegetables play an important role to support families, providing a lot of the food for the household, in addition to income,” explained Barbara Vinceti, a forest ecologist and lead author of the study. 

Despite their importance, Central Asian gardens have not received much attention from the scientific community. However, the CIAT research is shedding new light on the subject. 

“Central Asia is an important center of origin for many globally valued fruit and nut tree species. Forest degradation and deforestation are cause for concern for the conservation of these valuable species, now confined to small remnant populations,” wrote the study authors. 

“Home gardens have the important function of sustaining household food consumption and income generation, and can potentially play a critical role in conserving diversity of fruit and nut trees.”

The researchers studied diversity within and across the fruit and nut trees in the region by talking to the growers and analyzing wild versions of the trees in neighboring forests. 

“We looked at home gardens situated close to forests and examined how genetic material moves between the forests and the home gardens,” said Marlène Elias, a senior scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. 

Elias noted that home gardens are a bastion for genetic diversity, which makes them “living genebanks” that are essential to protect. However, they are threatened by outside influences from the USA, Russia, and Europe. 

Growers in Central Asia realize they can make more money from foreign varieties, especially apples and pears, and are replacing their traditional crops with these commercial varieties. This loss of diversity is devastating, according to Vinceti, who warns that “once that diversity is lost is lost, it is lost forever.” 

“We saw a significant erosion of local tree varieties of key species as more varieties come from outside,” said Vinceti. “In Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, we examined this dynamic flow of planting material and its sources, understanding the future prospects of home gardens, and looking at differences between the three countries.”

Crop diversity is essential for protection against disease and climate change. So, while there may be some short-term financial gain, the growers could be setting themselves, and future generations, up for failure.

The research is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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