World's Largest Database of Weeds Lets Scientists Peer Into the Past, and Future, of Global Agriculture

Jan 24, 2024

A new database of weeds that can help scientists understand how traditional agricultural systems were managed throughout history, could provide insights into how global trends like the climate crisis could affect the resilience of our modern-day food systems.

The database is the culmination of 30 years of collaborative research from archaeologists and ecologists working at the Universities of Sheffield and Oxford. It catalogs nearly 1,000 species of weeds growing in traditional agricultural regimes in Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The work has been published in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.

The open access resource, created and published by academics continuing the research project through the Oxford University Research Archive, offers researchers worldwide the opportunity to compare archaeobotanical data with 'traditional' farming systems.

The database catalogs the functional traits of weeds growing among arable cereal and pulse crops for all 928 weed species. The aim of the project was to be able to compare past and present farming systems through the weeds that grow alongside arable crops.

Plant ecologist, John Hodgson, who worked at what is now the University of Sheffield's School of Biosciences, was involved in the research from the 1990s. He said, "The data gives archaeologists and plant ecologists a way to understand the past and predict the future together.

"In modern day agricultural environments, where crops are micromanaged and everything that is not wanted is removed, it can be difficult to monitor long term changes to environments and plant species. So by investigating historical weed populations, instead of the crops, the data offers researchers a unique way to see what has been lost and gained over the ages.

"Analysis of the data allows us to look at what kind of plants have the ability to adapt to, or may be vulnerable to changing conditions in their habitats. The robust data from this years-long research offers the potential for understanding the resilience of food systems in a time of climate change, drought and degradation of land, and the exploration of a narrative for issues the world is facing today in terms of global food production."

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