Scientists have announced a plan to collect and store the wild plant relatives of essential food crops, including wheat, rice, and potatoes.
The project, co-ordinated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, will collect and catalogue seeds from across the globe.
The aim is to safeguard valuable genetic traits that the wild plants contain, which could be bred into crops to make them more hardy and versatile.
This could help secure food supplies in the face of a changing climate.
We need to go back to the wild to find those relatives of our crops that can thrive in the climates of the future
Global Crop Diversity Trust
All of the plant material collected will be stored in seed banks in the long term, but much of it will also be used in “pre-breeding trials” to find out if the wild varieties could be used to combat diseases that are already threatening food production.
Dr Paul Smith is head of the Millennium Seed Bank at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which is playing a key role in the project.
“There is a real sense of urgency about this,” he told BBC News.
“For some of these species, we may just get this one bite of the cherry, because so many of them are already threatened [with extinction] in their natural habitats.”
The project will collect and catalogue seeds from throughout the globe
The hope is that the wild relatives of food crops will help plant-breeders to “correct for”, not only a changing climate, but plant diseases and loss of viable agricultural land.
Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust explained: “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.”
Crops’ wild relatives make up only a tiny fraction of the material contained in the world’s gene banks.
But, according to Kew, their contribution to commercial agriculture alone is estimated at more than $100 billion per year.
In the 1970s, for example, an outbreak of grassy stunt virus, which prevents the rice plant from flowering and producing grain, decimated rice harvests across Asia.
Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute screened thousands of samples of wild and locally-cultivated rice plants looking for genetic resistance to the disease.
They found it in a wild relative, Oryza nivara, which grows in India. The gene has been incorporated into most new rice varieties since the discovery.
By Victoria Gill
Science and nature reporter, BBC News