Conserving Food Crops’ Wild Relatives for Food Security
In a recent interview with Voice of America (VOA), the surprisingly clean shaven DAPA director and leader of the climate smart agriculture flagship of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) Andy Jarvis stressed the need to conserve food crops’ wild relatives (CWR) for the sake of global food security. He explained that as the earth’s food security will be threatened by population growth and increased dietary expectations, agricultural production will need to increase by at least 50 to 70 percent by 2050.
“And to be honest, we’re running out of options in terms of making crops more productive. And so, really what I think we’ve got to do is go back to the wild. Go back to the origins to look for characteristics that we can use to improve our crops,” Jarvis said.
CWR species have evolved under natural selection in their native ranges coming to be adapted to specific conditions such as high temperatures, salinity, and assorted pests and diseases. Such traits can be bred into crop plants, greatly benefiting agricultural production. However, there is a problem as many of the wild relatives are disappearing from their natural habitats, and the majority are likewise not sufficiently conserved in gene banks.
In the same post, VOA shares an on-the-road interview with Heather-Rose Kates, a scientist who takes long driving trips in California’s Mojave Desert to search for one particular crop wild relative: the coyote melon. Considering its drought tolerance, this cousin of the squash could be useful in making the crop more robust to limited water availability.
Here at DAPA, our research team is partnering on the Crop Wild Relative (CWR) project, a global effort to collect and conserve the wild relatives of important food crops, while they are still available. International and national partners around the world are collaborating to preserve these plants and store their seeds ex situ. These efforts will provide the genetic materials that will be used by plant breeders in the future.
For more information on CWR collection methods, take a look at this blog post. For more information on the identity of crop wild relatives, see the CWR Inventory. For an interactive map of their distributions, see the CWR Global Atlas. And for a recent article authored by the DAPA CWR team in partnership with researchers around the world, see the Pigeonpea paper.
Written by Colin Khoury
Colin Khoury is a visiting Research Scientist working in the Decision and Policy Analysis Program (DAPA) at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). He is part of CIAT’s Crop Wild Relatives research team.