The wild relatives of our crops represent a vital source of untapped genetic diversity, which is now at risk of disappearing, just when it is most needed. 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 in adapting crops to climate change. They typically display characteristics -- such as heat and drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance and the ability to thrive in saline soils -- which would allow crops to cope with a wider range of environments and stresses.
Yet despite the enormous promise they hold for adapting agriculture to climate change, crop wild relatives are not as thoroughly conserved and systematically used in breeding as they should be, because doing so is expensive and technically challenging. In particular, as they are wild plants, they cannot be straightforwardly included into a crop breeding programme – their valuable characteristics must first be identified and moved into intermediate products that can then in turn be used in producing the desired varieties, a process called ‘pre-breeding’. Perhaps the most urgent challenge to their use is that these species are themselves under pressure, from the same forces threatening other wild biodiversity.
With the generous support of the Government of Norway, the Trust has launched a project in partnership with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew which will safeguard and use the wild relatives of 29 crops of major importance to food security. The project team will first identify those crop wild relatives that are missing from existing collections, are most likely to contain diversity of value to adapting agriculture to climate change, and are most endangered. This phase is expected to be complete by early 2013 and results will be published here. National project partners will then collect them from the wild and conserve them in genebanks, with additional key support from CGIAR centres. This material will then be evaluated for important traits and prepared for use in adapting crops for new climates through pre-breeding. Consultations on how best to do this are already taking place for different crops.
The pre-bred material incorporating the desired traits will be channeled into existing breeding initiatives, focusing on developing countries. The resulting information will be made widely available. This project will introduce a range of new and exciting adaptive options for agriculture that might otherwise have been lost, whilst helping protect biodiversity from disappearing.