Securing food crop traits essential

As the world population increases each day, securing the international food supply becomes fundamentally important.

Agriculture depends on relatively few crops – only about 150 are cultivated on any significant scale worldwide. However, each comes in a vast range of different forms that pose challenges for the global agriculture industry.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust (The Trust) announced a major global project in December to systematically find, gather, catalog, use and save the wild relatives of essential food crops, to help protect global food supplies against the imminent threat of climate change and to strengthen future food security.

The Trust is a unique public-private partnership raising funds from individual, corporate and government donors to establish an endowment fund that will provide complete and continuous funding for key crop collections.

“Wild relatives” is terminology for non-domesticated crops that are genetically related to or are ancestors of a domesticated plant.

If actions aren’t taken to protect wild-crop seedlings, “These shortages can lead to loss of diversity, the very building blocks on which adaptive and productive agriculture depends,” states The Trust.

“All of our crops were originally developed from wild species—that’s how farming began,” said Cary Fowler, executive director of The Trust.

“Wild relatives typically contain characteristics such as heat or drought tolerance, disease resistance or the ability to thrive in saline soils, which can permit the adaptation of crops to a far wider range of environments and stresses. As they have traits allowing them to be successful at the current extremes of a crop’s range and beyond, wild relatives can be extremely important contributors to our ability to adapt crops to climate change.”

They also contribute to the development of strengthening future commercial crops against attacks from pests and diseases.

The contribution of crop wild relatives has been estimated by one study to be worth more than $115 billion worldwide.
Many wild crops are inadequately uncollected, and therefore unevaluated and unavailable to plant breeders and farmers.

Many are also at risk of extinction, because of destruction and degradation of their natural environments, such as deforestation, desertification and climate change.

For example, an outbreak of grassy stunt virus in the 1970s, which prevents the rice plant from flowering and producing grain, decimated rice harvests in Asia. Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) screened more than 10,000 samples of wild and locally cultivated rice plants for resistance to the disease and found it in a wild relative, Oryza nivara, growing in India. The gene has since been incorporated into most new varieties since the discovery to help safeguard this crop.

Alfalfa, bambara groundnut, banana, barley, bean, chickpea, cowpea, faba bean, finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato, vetch and wheat samples will be collected.

After collection has occurred, samples will be stored in national facilities, CGIAR centres, Millennium Seed Bank and in Svalbard Global Seed Vault for breeding of improved crop varities.

Farmers and researchers throughout the world are optimistic about what the project can do for the future of agriculture.

“Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. Climate change will cause agricultural production to drop substantially within just 20 years,” states The Trust.

Do you believe this is an important project? Should more or less be done in regards to crop security?

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