There are plenty of variables that can change the effectiveness of individual crop varieties, but without a doubt the scariest is climate change. As the weather becomes unpredictable, the standard varieties of everything from corn and soybeans to tomatoes and green beans may, suddenly, not grow quite so well anymore.
One of the most promising ways to deal with this is simply to learn more about the plant’s genetics, and use techniques ranging from age-old breeding to high-tech genetic modification to come up with more adaptable varieties. But a new survey finds that one of the best tools for doing that is dangerously under-utilized. From the press release issued by the University of Birmingham:
“These so-called crop wild relatives (CWR) – distant cousins of well-known food crops like rice, potato maize and wheat – are widely recognized as one of the most important resources available to plant breeders in the fight against climate change.” Crop wild relatives are sometimes the original ancestor of the domesticated plant we all know and love, or sometimes are just other, wild relatives. Their major strength is that they grow naturally without any help from humans – they might not produce, say, as delicious a tomato as a carefully-bred domestic variety, but they can sure survive in the wild, and that quality is just as valuable.
The idea of cross-breeding with crop wild relatives is not new; for millennia farmers have planted these plants near their own crops in order to promote healthy interchange. But, this study finds, they’re disappearing. Like basically any other wild plant (or animal!), development, deforestation, and various other human-related causes are proving to be huge threats to crop wild relatives. One solution to that would be to save their seeds in the gene banks and seed banks set up for that purpose: If we have the seeds, we have the genetic material, and thus we have the tools.
This study, published in the journal, Nature Plants, examined 1,076 crop wild relatives, comprising the wild versions of 81 of the world’s most important crops, including grains, fruits, and vegetables. It found that 313 of those crop wild relatives are completely absent from any gene bank or seed bank, that 257 of them have fewer than 10 samples (making them much less useful), and more than 95 percrent of them are “insufficiently represented in regard to the full range of geographic and ecological variation in their native distributions.”
“It’s now clear that scientists around the world are in a race against time to collect and conserve many of the most important plant species for future food security,” said Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, a scientist and author of the study.