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One-Day Symposium at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

23 November 2015

One-Day Symposium at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

The Role of Crop Diversity and Food Resilience in a Changing Climate

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG, Kew) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) will be jointly organising a one-day symposium on November 23 bringing together experts from around the UK to discuss the role of crop diversity and Crop Wild Relatives (CWR), in building more sustainable and resilient agriculture and food security. The objective of this symposium is to inform research scientists and decision makers about the critical importance of CWR in climate change adaptation, and the ongoing UK work in this field.

This vital meeting of minds comes in the lead-up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), which takes place in Paris in December 2015. There will be discussions around a legally binding global agreement to combat climate change through both adaptation and mitigation, and promote the transition towards more resilient, low-carbon societies and economies. Agriculture and food security are major issues in this regard, but have thus far been generally left off of the COP21 agenda. Breeding better-adapted and more efficient crops is key to achieving these objectives.

The recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals specifically mentions the importance of crop wild relatives in Target 2.5:

By 2020 maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed.

The Crop Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank of RBG, Kew jointly manage the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives project to collect many of the most important crop wild relative species, ensure their long-term conservation, and facilitate their use in breeding new, improved crops. This is a ten-year project, supported by the Government of Norway.

Kathy Willis, Director of Science at RBG, Kew, said:

Our best allies in the fight against climate change are organisms that can withstand climate change. By identifying, collecting and conserving those species which can adapt to changing conditions, we can mitigate against the potentially catastrophic effects of food scarcity related to climate change. To do this, we need to continuously maintain and update the vast, interconnected gene pool of our key food crops. 

The UK is one of the leading centres for this work. We have many different collections across the country, ranging from peas to fruits, to the wild relatives of cultivated food crops. These living collections are vital to ensuring resilience to possible future threats. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is at the heart of this effort, and the CWR programme, run jointly with the Crop Trust is a Kew’s flagship project.

Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust, said:

The diversity of crop wild relatives represents a game changer for agriculture. This project is providing scientists, breeders and farmers around the world with access to crop wild relatives, which will have resistance to diseases and pests that the world has never seen before. If we are to adapt agriculture to climate change, we need to stack the odds heavily in the farmers’ favour. This project does just that.


Crop Wild Relatives Explained

Fifty years ago, during the 1970’s, rice yields across much of South East Asia suffered severe losses. The cause was Rice Grassy Stunt Virus, which was spread by brown planthoppers. The virus wreaked havoc on the rice cultivars grown by most farmers, leading to the destruction of more than 116,000 hectares of fields. Crop breeders tried in vain to screen resistant genes in more than 6,000 varieties of both cultivated and wild rice. Finally, this vital trait was discovered in a single wild relative of rice, Oryza nivara.

Crossing O. nivara with domesticated O. sativa allowed the transfer of Rice Grassy Stunt Virus resistance, ensuring rice production quickly recovered.

Crisis duly averted. Or merely postponed? Fast forward to today, and a planet of 7 billion people consumes 80% of its calories from just 12 plant species, with 50% coming from just three – wheat, maize and rice. These crops are now at risk from changes in climatic conditions and the diseases resulting from increased temperatures.

This is why RBG, Kew and the Crop Trust are helping partners to track down and conserve the wild relatives of our most prized crop plants. Although many crop wild relatives look like weeds, they are just what they sound like – rugged, hardy cousins to our more pampered domesticated crop plants. They are diverse, used to living in marginal conditions and fighting off disease, yet still hold vital adaptive genes, which have been bred out in modern agriculture. In the years to come, crop breeders will come to rely on reuniting these long lost family members.

The Project funds four primary activities: CWR prioritization, collection, conservation, and pre-breeding work to prepare CWR genetic material for use in breeding programs. The Project's activities are focused specifically on collecting and conserving the wild relatives of 29 focal crops, and launching pre-breeding projects for 20 of these crops.

  • Of the 29 priority crop gene pools targeted, the project focused on a set of 450 crop wild relatives
  • Important cereal crops in much of Africa, including sorghum and finger millet, are also at high risk and the collection of their wild relatives is being prioritised
  • Countries with the richest number of priority crop wild relatives include: Australia, Bolivia, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey and USA. Although these countries are mostly located in the traditionally recognised centres of high wild crop diversity, notable exceptions are USA, Australia and the European countries. For example, northern Australia has been identified as rich in the wild relatives of African staple sorghum
  • This highlights the important role that the wild plant resources in industrialised countries have to contribute to food security in developing nations. It is expected that there will be collecting in Italy and Portugal this summer, carried out by scientists from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and local partners
  • In the UK, crop wild relatives of apple, carrot and the fodder crops alfafa and vetch are of high priority for collection
  • Thanks to an additional contribution from the Simon Family in the USA, we are training even more partners to identify, find and conserve seed from crop wild relatives in South East Asia.
  • Adding urgency to the need for field collections, some of the crop wild relatives on the priority list are believed to be threatened by factors such as habitat loss. For example, the wild cousin, Phaseolus persistentus, of the common bean from Central America
  • One is thought to be extinct in the wild, Solanum ruvu, a wild relative of eggplant (aubergine), which comes from Tanzania

Additional facts

  • 80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 plant species (Source: Grivetti, L.E. & Ogle, B.M. (2000), Value of traditional foods in meeting macro- and micronutrient needs: the wild plant connection. Nutrition Research Reviews 13, 31-46)
  • 50% of our calories come from just the three big grasses; wheat, maize and rice (Source:
  • One fifth of the world’s plant species are under threat of extinction (Source: Sampled Red List Index for Plants, RBG Kew, 2010). Plant species under threat include wild relatives of cultivated crops that could be key to securing food sources in the future.
  • The 29 crops and their wild relatives targeted by the project, are covered by Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA)
    • They are: African rice, alfalfa, apple, eggplant (aubergine), bambara groundnut, banana, barley, wheat, lima bean (butter bean), carrot, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, faba bean (broad bean), finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, plantain, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato and vetch.

Examples where wild relatives have already been used to enhance crops:

  • Wild broccoli species have been used to produce a nutritionally enhanced variety of broccoli which contains higher levels of anti-cancer agent glucoraphanin Sulforaphane, which is derived from glucoraphanin on ingestion, leads to lower levels of heart disease and acts against some forms of cancer
  • Wild relatives of pearl millet have successfully been used in breeding programs to transfer traits such as drought and disease resistance to the main crop


Categories: For The Press, Press Releases, Crop Wild Relatives, Rice

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