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Crop Wild Relatives: The Nexus of Conservation and Agriculture

Sir Peter Crane | President OSGF & Crop Trust Executive Board Member

The end of October was a busy time for the Crop Trust with the sixth meeting of the Advisory Group of the Crop Wild Relatives Project, followed immediately by a Board Meeting of the Crop Trust itself. I was fortunate to participate in both and be reminded once again about the importance of this work to secure the world’s key crops for all of humanity.

The future of food fundamentally depends on these plants, and we all share a common interest in ensuring their productivity and resilience in an era of climate change and rapid environmental perturbation.

As recognized in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations a little over a year ago, maintaining the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and their wild relatives is central to ending hunger, achieving food security, improving human nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture.

I have been honored to be part of the Advisory Group since the start of the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) Project in 2011. The Group meets ever year to review progress with this decade long effort.

The goal of the CWR Project is to identify and secure the valuable genetic diversity contained within the wild relatives of our most important crop plants, and to make that diversity more accessible to plant breeders so that new and valuable traits – from drought tolerance to pathogen resistance – can be incorporated into the crops of the future.

As well as reviewing progress, the CWR Advisory Board provides input into the work plan for the coming year, and is briefed on all stages of the project – from field expeditions in more than 20 countries to the pre-breeding that makes new genetic material available for crop improvement.

In addition to Crop Trust staff, the Advisory Group meeting included participants from Cornell University, the Norwegian University of Life Science, the Secretariat of the International Treaty on
Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at FAO, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). Also present were several of my old friends from the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I spent seven happy and fulfilling years as Director back in the early 2000s. The collaboration between Kew and the Crop Trust is central to the whole CWR effort.

Oak Spring Garden Foundation

This year it was a special pleasure for me to host the Advisory Board at the newly renovated facilities of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, Virginia. This was the very first meeting to be held at Oak Spring under the auspices of the new foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and sharing the estate, residence and garden of Rachel Lambert Mellon in ways that inspire and facilitate scholarship and public dialogue on the history and future of plants, including their use in gardens, landscapes and agriculture.

The focus of the meeting could not have been more appropriate and it also gave the opportunity to share Mrs. Mellon’s magnificent library with our guests.

Many of the works in the Oak Spring Garden Library deal with plants that are the focus of the work of the Crop Trust. They remind us that people from all around the world, all throughout history, have understood that their very survival depends on careful management of their key crops.

As part of the CWR Advisory Group meeting, we took the opportunity to host a seminar – “Building sustainable bridges between agriculture and conservation: exploring the potential role of crop wild relatives”. This seminar was another first for Oak Spring, taking advantage of its location in beautiful rural northern Virginia, in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but only about 25 miles west of Dulles International Airport.

Oak Spring is an ideal location for bringing together international experts and leaders, with representatives of governments and NGOs who are based in Washington DC. For this first seminar at Oak Spring, we were delighted that the CWR Advisory Board was joined by representatives of the World Wildlife Fund, the National Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian Institution, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the US Department of Agriculture, the US National Botanic Garden, Conservation International and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The starting point for the seminar was the tension implicit in many discussions about the future of biological diversity on our planet, which makes an overly simplistic distinction between conservation and agriculture, without considering the many ways in which conservation and agriculture are intimately connected.

The goal was to begin a conversation about whether a more integrated approach to conserving plant diversity can be developed, which recognizes that preserving the genetic diversity of crop plants is vital to developing more sustainable and resilient agriculture with reduced environmental impacts. All of the attendees had some focus of their work on the stewardship of plant genetic diversity in the broadest sense, and the aim was to explore whether their different vantage points across this complex landscape could be brought together into a more integrated approach.

All over the world, the clearance of land for agriculture is the single largest driver of the loss of native habitat, and the greatest single threat to plant diversity. It is therefore not surprising that ‘agriculture’ is often portrayed as a threat to ‘nature’ that has to be contained and opposed.

However, at the same time, it is undeniable that agriculture is vital to the future of all of humanity and that the medium and long-term resilience of agricultural systems rests fundamentally on how plant diversity – both cultivated and wild – is used.

Agriculture is a sine qua non of human civilization, but it can be practiced in different ways that depend in large part on the characteristics of the plants under cultivation. Therefore, any vision of the future that includes the sustainable intensification of agriculture, no matter how technologically intensive, must have plants at its core. This is because the traits that can make agriculture more efficient will be drawn from the broad genetic reservoir of wild relatives, land races, and varieties, of which all crops are part.

Understanding that genetic reservoir, and ensuring that it remains available to meet the challenges of the future, is central to the work of the CWR project. It became evident from the seminar that this is an important, but little used, rationale for in situ conservation of wild plant species.

The seminar included lively discussion around these complex and interconnected issues, and it quickly became clear that there is considerable opportunity for improved communication that highlights the link between the importance of conserving crop diversity – both in situ and ex situ – and the opportunity to develop more sustainable approaches to agriculture.

There was also recognition that the intellectual and scientific landscape surrounding these issues is highly fragmented, with different sectors viewing the issues from very different perspectives, with little thought given to developing a more integrated and interdisciplinary picture.

Participants in the seminar agreed that because crop wild relatives are a threatened resource for crop improvement, and because they also stand at the nexus of conservation and agriculture, they are an excellent point of departure for communicating the larger issues at stake.

They make clear that the future of plants, in the broadest sense, hinges on an integrated vision of how plants are used. This is the most obvious, highest level, manifestation of the duality at the heart of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture – the principles of conservation and use – and it requires that those interested in conserving the variety of plant life work side-by side with those interested in growing plants to meet our need for food. If we want to protect the biodiversity of our planet – and at the same time feed 9 billion people by 2050 – conservation and agriculture cannot be viewed separately. A more holistic approach is needed.

There was also much discussion about the value of genetic resources represented by wild relatives, land races, and varieties in light of rapid developments in gene editing technologies and the opportunities that they represent for plant breeding. This presents a further communication challenge. It highlights the importance of convincing policymakers that gene editing and related technologies, despite their considerable promise, are no panacea. The diversity represented by the entire gene pool of each crop is still an irreplaceable resource, both for conventional plant breeding and more technologically intensive approaches.

The seminar concluded by acknowledging that to advance global efforts to protect the world’s biodiversity – in all its manifestations – both ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’– a broader vision is needed. That vision needs to move beyond parochial views about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do conservation.

At the same time, and perhaps even more importantly, it must co-opt the needs of agriculture as a central role in a more integrated conservation vision that can be embraced, not only by practitioners, but also by the many public and private donors who seek to balance the needs of nature with the needs of people.

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