Minding the gaps: scientists hail major advance in adapting food crops to climate change

31 July, 2013 by (comments)

Global efforts to adapt staple foods like rice, wheat and potato to climate change have been given a major boost as new research reveals the details and whereabouts of their “wild relatives” – their undomesticated distant cousins that could contain secrets to making food crops more productive and resilient.

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Some of these wild and weedy species have evolved to tolerate drought, higher temperatures or pest and disease outbreaks, all of which are expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change. But according to the new research carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) together with the UK’s University of Birmingham, as part of a project led by Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, less than half of these plants are conserved in the world’s genebanks, meaning scientists are missing out on significant opportunities for breeding more productive, climate-smart crops.

Using a technique called gap analysis, scientists studied 29 of the world’s most important food crops – including rice, wheat, potato, bean, barley, banana, plantain, oat and sorghum. They found that of the 455 wild relatives identified, over half are seriously underrepresented in genebanks. But fortunately, the new findings also show where these species might be found in the wild. With the new information, collecting teams will head out later this year to seek out the highest priority and most-at risk species in the largest coordinated conservation exercise for crop wild relatives ever undertaken. The study and the collecting work is part of a major 10-year project funded by the Government of Norway to help boost the resilience of staple foods crops to climate change.

“This is a major step forward in the global effort to make our food crops more resilient to the effects of climate change,” said Andy Jarvis, leader of CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area. “Crop wild relatives are a potential treasure trove of useful characteristics that scientists can put to good use for making agriculture more resilient and improving the livelihoods of millions of people.”

Adding urgency to the need for field collections, some of the regions where the wild species might be found are already at risk, with climate change itself, urbanisation, pollution, and the spread of agriculture threatening unique habitats. For example, in Costa Rica, suburban expansion around the capital San Jose threatens the closest wild relative of common bean – a crop grown by millions globally. Similarly, expansion of industrial agriculture in southeast Brazil currently threatens habitats for high-priority relatives of sweet potato and rice.

Click to read this article on the work, published by Nature News, and visit the project website, where an interactive map of the results will be published soon.


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Filed Under: Africa @en, Asia @en, Climate Change, Climate Change website, Crop diversity, Latin America and the Caribbean