Over the next decades, the world is expected to experience climate change that will likely bring about more extreme weather such as higher average temperatures and more variable rainfall. This will impact most food crops in tangible ways and in many cases agricultural yields are predicted to fall significantly.
Adapting agriculture to climate change is therefore an urgent challenge of our time. A critical step to prepare for a changing climate is to ensure that the crops feeding humanity are more resilient to the vagaries of the weather, by developing new crop varieties that can be productive in changing climatic conditions.
For agriculture to meet this challenge, plant breeders will need genetic diversity. The greatest source of untapped diversity, especially for the adaptive characteristics needed to confront the challenges of a changing climate, are the wild relatives of our domesticated food crops. These crop wild relatives are however threatened in their natural environment; they are also missing in crop collections and therefore not yet available for use.
Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives
In response, the Crop Trust has embarked on a long-term effort to collect, conserve and initiate the use of the wild relatives of crops. It aims at identifying those wild crop varieties that are missing from existing crop collections, are most likely to contain diversity of value to making agriculture more productive, and are most endangered. These crop varieties are then collected from the wild and conserved in genebanks; evaluated for useful traits and prepared for use in crop improvement (pre-breeding) programs; and made available globally through their inclusion in pertinent information systems.
The Crop Trust is managing this crop wild relative project in partnership with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, United Kingdom. The 10-year project is funded by the Norwegian Government and focuses on the wild relatives in the gene pools of 29 focal crops of importance to global food security, all included in Annex 1 of the Plant Treaty.
Research and Conservation Gaps
The first phase of the Project was dedicated to research and planning to determine the species and geographical areas for collection (gap analysis). The research phase was implemented with partners at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the University of Birmingham, UK.
The project created an inventory of crop wild relatives; assembled, collated and processed taxonomic and geographic occurrence data on wild relatives of the world’s major crops; and utilized these data in gap analyses. Such analyses were completed for a total of 81 crop genepools, completing the analyses for essentially all of the world’s most important food crops. The results were subjected to expert validation and made available through the project website.
Using the gap analysis results and other parameters, priority countries for collecting and taxa to be collected have been determined. National partners will undertake the collecting missions, supported by the Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank who help strengthen the capacity of national partners by providing training and equipment. Regional training workshops have also been held in Vietnam and Uganda. Collecting will take place over the next several years.
Pre-breeding and use
The Crop Trust held expert consultations on strategies and priorities for the use of crop wild relatives, particularly in the context of climate change in the developing world.
Two pilot projects were established for rice and sunflower early on, because a considerable amount of crop wild relative diversity already exists in genebanks for these crops.
Pre-breeding projects will be established for a total of 20 crops. At this time, the Crop Trust is already supporting pre-breeding work on eight crops. Each of these projects contains significant capacity building components and are typically carried out by a partnership between national programs, universities and CGIAR centres.
For more information on the Crop Wild Relatives project, visit the project website.