Crop wild relatives are the wild cousins of our cultivated crops. With many having evolved to survive tough conditions, they can contain useful traits which can help breeders develop crops that are more resilient to climate change.
Vital as they may be, many crop wild relatives are not conserved in genebanks and many are threatened in their natural environments by urbanization, deforestation and the expansion of agriculture. Partnering with passionate collectors, breeders and crop scientists all over the world, the Project seeks to collect the crop wild relatives of 29 priority crops, ensure their long-term conservation and facilitate their use in breeding new, improved crops.
The Project has completed the six-year phase focused on collecting the wild relatives in the world’s biodiversity “hotspots.” In 25 countries, over 4,600 seed samples were collected of 371 different species or subspecies. These included wild species of potato in Peru, eggplant in Kenya, banana in Malaysia and many more. Using these samples, the Project has turned its attention to the world’s seed banks, where the material is preserved and duplicated, so that the collected wild relatives can be threaded into breeding programs to make their way to the farmers who need them most.
The Project is formally titled “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting, and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives.” It is supported by the Government of Norway. The Project is managed by the Crop Trust with the Millenium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and implemented in partnership with national and international genebanks and plant breeding institutes all over the world.
“Worldwide, there are dozens of genebanks safeguarding the diversity of food crops,” said Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, the lead researcher on the initial study which identified exactly which crop wild relative species should be collected.“We found chinks in the armor of the global food system: Many important species were entirely absent from these collections or were seriously underrepresented in them. We needed an urgent rescue mission to find and safeguard as many crop wild relatives as possible before they disappeared from their natural habitats.”
The Project focuses on working with the wild relatives of 29 priority crops, selected based on their importance and occurrence on Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The Project includes five main components:
The first phase of the Project focused on the development of a global CWR inventory, an occurrence dataset, and gap analyses detailing where CWR species have not been collected before. This initial research step helped to identify and prioritize which CWR to collect and where, based on a global dataset of past collections, expert evaluations, and information on ease of use in breeding for each species.
CWR have to be collected from the wild before they can be used in breeding. Under this project, over one hundred scientists from 25 countries on four continents took part in a six-year quest to collect the wild plant species that scientists and breeders can use to make our crops more productive in increasingly challenging climates. After spending a collective 2,973 days in the field on exhausting and sometimes even dangerous expeditions, the researchers secured 4,644 seed samples of 371 crop wild relatives—many endangered—of 28 globally important crops.
Once crop wild relatives have been collected, conserving them properly in ex situ collections is essential to ensure their continued availability for breeding and to safeguard their genetic diversity from extinction in the field. All crop wild relatives collected as part of this project are conserved in the national collections of the country of origin, the Millennium Seed Bank, the appropriate CGIAR international collection, and ultimately the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The first step is using CWR in crop improvement is pre-breeding, an essential component of the Project consisting of a wide range of activities that aim to isolate desired genetic traits (e.g. disease resistance) and introduce them into breeding lines that are more readily crossable with modern, elite varieties.
5. Information Systems
Collections of crop wild relatives and pre-breeding material need to be used actively. In order for this material to be used, data about the material needs to be of as high quality, and as easily accessible, as the seeds and breeding material themselves. Therefore, the Crop Wild Relatives Project is working to build information systems to help manage and search crop collections globally.
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