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To climate-proof our food supply, go where the wild things are

by Geoff Hawtin, CIAT/Royal Botanic Gardens | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Monday, 21 March 2016 19:10 GMT

Scientists involved in collecting crop wild relatives in Pakistan, Nepal, Vietnam and Malaysia learning the best techniques on collection and long-term conservation at Kew in Britain. The Global Crop Diversity Trust/L. Salazar

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Crop wild relatives are a key weapon to strengthen our food systems against climate shifts and must be protected

Species that survive in the wild are tough. This doesn’t just apply to wild animals; wild relatives of crops have a whole host of traits that make them stronger than their common cousins that we know as the fruits, roots and vegetables we eat.

As the effects of climate change tighten their grip on our food supply, and higher temperatures and erratic rains make it harder for the world’s farmers to grow the food we demand, we need to lean on these wild species. We need them to be available for plant scientists to use, to breed more resilient crops.

But there is a problem: a huge percentage of the wild crop relatives that are important for our future supply are under represented in genebanks around the world. According to new research published in Nature Plants this week, 765 species are in urgent need of collection.

This ranges from the wild relatives of sugarcane, maize, and millet, as well as well-loved fruits such as bananas and mangoes. If these wild species are not preserved in genebanks, we have no way to access the genes they may have developed for fighting particular diseases, or withstanding higher temperatures.

The new study, “Global Conservation Priorities for Crop Wild Relatives” is the first of its kind to map where critical wild species can be found. So where in the world can we find where these wild things are?

South America has been highlighted as one of the “hot spot” areas where seven high priority species related to our domesticated rice, and an incredible 29 high priority species of potato can be found.

For rice, the species are concentrated across Brazil, as well as in Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. The potato species are concentrated throughout central Mexico and the northern Andes, particularly in Peru.

In sub-Saharan Africa, wild species of staple crops like sorghum and millet can be found. These two crops are going to become even more crucial for adapting to higher temperatures due to their heat and drought tolerance. Eighty eight percent of sorghum species are considered to be high priority, and many can be found in the Sahel region and Southern Africa. 

But it’s not just the developing world where crop wild relatives can be found – Northern Australia was revealed to be one of the regions with a rich diversity of wild species, from rice to pigeon pea. The United States is home to 38 species of sunflower (important as a vegetable cooking oil) and Western Europe is home to wild relatives of carrot, which has 21 species that are considered a high priority for collecting.

Wild varieties of wheat, chickpea, barley and lentils are just some of the species that can be found in the Middle East. In Syria, where civil war is raging, no less than 49 high priority species can be found. The need to act in places such as this is even more urgent, as terrible events are making the destruction of important species even more likely.


So how can the global community act, to ensure these wild species are collected and preserved? It is going to require long-term funding and capacity support for the researchers involved. This study forms part of a 10-year project funded by the Government of Norway – it is commitments of this scale that allow scientists to take the process of collecting, preserving, and working on these species from start to finish.

It is also going to require greater collaboration between nations to share not only seeds of the species they maintain in their genebanks but also information about them. Long-term food security is a global issue, and as this research demonstrates, it is going to take a worldwide effort to save these vital wild species.

Our project is a great example of collaboration between institutes across the globe – researchers from Crop Trust in Germany have worked with the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew in Britain and CIAT in Colombia – a truly global accomplishment.

Finally, international support mechanisms are also going to be key. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is one such example. Member nations signed up to the treaty are able to work together to exchange and conserve crop genetic resources, and also receive a fair share of the benefits arising from their use.

Frameworks at a global level such as this are vital for the world to be able to grow enough food to feed its burgeoning population, expected to be 9 billion by 2050, in the face of the ongoing menace of changing climates.

Crop wild relatives are one of the best weapons we have to climate-proof our food systems. We cannot afford to let them disappear.

Geoff Hawtin is on the board of trustees for the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) and for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).