Crop Wild Relatives and Global Food Security

by Adin Bonapart

Domestication by humans has reduced the genetic diversity within certain crops over time, making agriculture more susceptible to changes in climate. Some of the relevant effects of global climate change include shifts in temperature, rain variability, and plant pathogen range, all of which impact crops in various ways. Models predict that such climate-driven effects account for yield losses of 6 to 10% per 1°C of warming (Guarino and Lobell 2011). Furthermore, a global human population predicted to reach over 9.3 billion by 2050, plus degraded soils, water, land, and other resources, is creating further instability for food systems around the world.

“Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change” is a ten-year project supported by the Government of Norway and managed by several global seed banks, which is addressing global food security by creating a collection of major crops and their relatives with the characteristics required for adapting to climate change. The 2014 paper by Dempewolf et al. details the goals, methods, and results of this on-going project.

The researchers consider the crop wild relatives (CWRs) as valuable pools of genetic diversity, in which to find the tools for adapting agriculture to climate change. Historically, the crossing of crops with CWRs has been used for agricultural purposes such as increased yields and adapting plants to drought, cold and increased saline conditions. This project will systematically collect, conserve, and evaluate CWRs of 29 focal crops under predicted climate change conditions, and identify useful traits and make this material available for agricultural use.

According to the study, there is very limited CWR gene pool data, and no global assessment of the state of conservation of CWRs. The first completed step of the project was the collation of CWR taxa for over 173 crop gene pools into a checklist and to make this data available online. The researchers estimate 10,000 species of CWR of “high potential value” to food security. The project is time sensitive however, because most of the relevant CWRs are threated in their wild ecosystems by human development, and climate change is likely to further compound these pressures.

Dempewolf, H., Eastwood, R., Guarino, L., Khoury, C., et al., 2014. Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: A Global Initiative to Collect, Conserve, and Use Crop Wild Relatives. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 38, 4, 369-377.

Guarino, L., Lobell, D.B. 2011. A Walk on the Wild Side. Nature Climate Change 1, 374-375.

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