Genetic traits of food crops are being collected in the largest ever global search to help protect global food supplies against the threat of climate change.
The initiative is being led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, working in partnership with national agricultural research institutes, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), who will all seek to find, gather, catalogue and use the wild relatives of wheat, rice, beans, potato, barley, lentils, chickpea and other essential food crops.
These wild plants contain essential traits that could be bred into crops to make them more durable and versatile in the face of varying climatic conditions.
Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, said,
All our crops were originally developed from wild species – that’s how farming began. But they were adapted from the plants best suited to the climates of the past. Climate change means we need to go back to the wild to find those relatives of our crops that can thrive in the climates of the future.
Crop wild relatives make up only a few percent of the world’s genebank holdings, yet their contribution to commercial agriculture alone is estimated at more than US$100 billion per year.
It is widely understood that, irrespective of the outcomes at the United Nations’ climate change conference in Cancún, the coming decades will see ever more challenging conditions for agriculture. The forecasts for declining yields are particularly frightening for the developing world. For example, yields for maize in Southern Africa, a vital crop in a region which already suffers from chronic hunger, are predicted to fall by up to 30 percent within just 20 years. The standard response until now has been that new, hardier varieties of our crops will be required.
Erik Solheim, Minister of the Environment and International Development of Norway, which is providing the initial budget of US$50 million to fund the work, said,
This project represents one of the most concrete steps taken to date to ensure that agriculture, and humanity, adapts to climate change. At a more fundamental level, the project also demonstrates the importance of biodiversity and genetic resources for human survival.