Meet the wild sunflower collectors!

Wild sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brightening up a gloomy sky (Photo: Kasia Stepien)

Wild sunflower, Helianthus annuus, brightening up a gloomy sky (Photo: Kasia Stepien)

Our USDA-ARS colleagues and friends Laura Marek and Gerald Seiler were recently featured in an article on the excitement of collecting wild sunflowers in Modern Farmer. The article follows the wild and wizened duo on their hunt for Helianthus anomalus in the drylands of Arizona and Utah!

Crop wild relatives – creating guides for seed collectors

There is a pressing need for agriculture to adapt to climate change, and learning more about wild relatives of crop plants could help us achieve this. Laura Jennings Collecting Guide Complier for the Crop Wild Relative (CWR) project describes how collecting guides produced by Kew help make seed-collecting fieldwork as productive as possible.

If you had to collect seeds from a particular species within a particular country, how would you know exactly where to go? How would you distinguish the species you were targeting from its close relatives? How would you know when the seeds would be ripe? Researching the answers to these questions is a key step in the collection of all types of seeds, and for the CWR at Kew we create collection guides (a kind of bespoke field guide) with all the information seed collectors need.

Malus ioensis var palmeri

Malus ioensis var palmeri, a wild relative of apple from the U.S.A. (Photo: L. Jennings)

CWR’s are wild plant species that share a common ancestor with cultivated crop plants. Throughout the history of agriculture, crop plants have become more and more genetically uniform through selective breeding for traits like high yield. By contrast, CWR species have been exposed to selection in their native range and retain a high degree of genetic diversity, so they retain genes that could allow them to adapt to environmental change. This has potential benefits for agriculture if those traits can be bred back into crop plants. Many CWR species are under threat in their natural habitats, so storing their seeds in seed banks is also a form of ex situ conservation, allowing them to be reintroduced into the wild as well as being available for scientific research.

Ensete glaucum fr2

Dried specimen of Ensete glaucum fruit (a wild relative of banana). The huge seeds are visible through the skin. (Photo: L. Jennings)

Inside the collecting guide

Data for all the CWR species on the project list are stored in the database program BRAHMS, which allows us to generate dynamic field guides by extracting the information for the subset of species for a particular country and placing it in a template for publication. This semi-automates the process and saves production time and cost. We provide a description for each species in a standard Flora style, because the users of the guides are scientists rather than the general public. We also highlight the key features that distinguish the target species from its close relatives in that region and provide additional information like phenology, habitat and altitude range and a suggested seed collecting technique to ensure high quality collections.

Most Floras display distribution maps as a series of points, usually based on locations of herbarium collections, which are useful because the points are verifiable. In addition to point maps, we use data provided by CIAT, who use MaxEnt modelling within a Geographical Information System, to produce predicted distribution maps. They then cross-reference those maps with records of collections already in seed banks and other ex situ collections to produce a map of where the gaps in collections of each species are, so that seed collections can be targeted to populations not already represented within seed banks.

Malus orientalis dist

Maps for Malus orientalis (a wild relative of apple) in Georgia: predicted distribution on the left (turquoise), gaps in ex situ collection on the right (pink), red points are locations of previous collections.

Arguably the most used part of a field guide is the images (the temptation to play ‘snap’ with the plant in hand and the images in the

Vicia grandiflora

Example guide page for Vicia grandiflora, showing photos of key characters

guide can be quite strong), and images of live plants are often preferred by users. However, images must be authoritatively named to species to be of any use in a field guide, so images from herbarium specimens identified by an expert can sometimes be more useful, if less attractive, than those from live plants. Species that are very rare or have a restricted range have often never been photographed, so images from a dried specimen are the only option in those cases.

Crop wild relative seeds are a largely untapped resource for crop improvement, but their potential is immense. In the short term, crop wild relatives are already being used to improve commercial crops. One example is the use of Helianthus paradoxus, a threatened species of sunflower from the USA, being hybridised with domesticated sunflower to increase its yield in salt-impacted soils (Hajjar & Hodgkin, 2007). In the longer term, wild relatives are a reservoir of diversity that could allow us to adapt agriculture to climate change and feed the growing human population, if we can collect, document and conserve them effectively.

Story written by Laura Jennings and reblogged from


Dempewolf, H., Eastwood, R.J., Guarino, L., Khoury, C.K., Müller, J.V. & Toll, J. (2014). Adapting agriculture to climate change: a global initiative to collect, conserve and use crop wild relatives. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems38(4):369­­­–377.

Hajjar, R. & Hodgkin, T. (2007). The use of wild relatives in crop improvement: a survey of developments over the last 20 years. Euphytica 156: 1­­­–13.

Ramírez-Villegas, J., Khoury, C., Jarvis, A., Debouck, D.G. & Guarino, L. (2010). A gap analysis methodology for collecting crop genepools: a case study with Phaseolus Beans. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13497. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013497.

Vincent, H. et al. (2013). A prioritized crop wild relative inventory to help underpin global food security. Biological Conservation 167: 265–275.

CWR Inventory for the US wins Crop Science award

Efforts to document the valuable crop wild relative genetic resources native to the United States were awarded in November 2014 with the “Outstanding Paper on Plant Genetic Resources in 2014” by the Division C-8 Plant Genetic Resources of the Crop Science Society of America, with an award given during the International Annual Meetings in Long Beach, California!

Capacity Building of Collecting and Long-Term Conservation of Crop Wild Relative Seeds: The Uganda Training Course 2014

The world we live in is ever changing, growing and facing new challenges on a daily basis – including threats to the plants that sustain our existence. 20% of all plant species are threatened with extinction, including many wild plants that are closely related to our crops and hold the potential to adapt agriculture to unprecedented changes. Today, a staggering 80% of global plant-based food intake comes from just 12 domesticated plant species. In fact, 50% of all this food energy comes from three species: wheat, rice and maize. That’s a very limited and narrow diet, considering the vast numbers of plant species that are available to provide food to people or diversity to crop breeding programs.

Dr. Kate Gold and Emma Williams of Kew Gardens with members of the training course at the Plant Genetic Resources Centre

With this, the need for plant based research and conservation has never been more pressing. The project “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives” is led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK, and is supported by the Government of Norway. Together they are working together to combat climate challenges by making available the diversity within wild species that are related to our major food crops. The project aims to collect and protect crop wild relatives (CWR) of the world’s 26 most important crops and to prepare collected material in a form that plant breeders can use to produce varieties adapted for future climatic conditions.

Training in Uganda                                                                                  

Following on from a successful training course in Vietnam, the CWR project ran a training course in Kampala, Uganda from 11-15 August 2014, in collaboration with eight national agricultural research organisations.


How well can you dry seeds under ambient conditions?

This course kicked off the African regional work within the project and is part of a new capacity building effort designed to focus on the collection and conservation of crop wild relatives.

Plant conservation practitioners and botanists from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Uganda had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Kate Gold and members of RGB Kew’s Seed Conservation Department based at the Millennium Seed Bank, as well as representatives of the Crop Trust.

The emphasis was on capacity building and knowledge sharing, which are both extremely important to the longevity of the project. The sharing of knowledge on correctly collecting and storing material now will reap benefits far into the uncertain future as African collections are used by researchers and pre-breeders.

In-field and theory learning

The course was designed for participants to enhance their skill set in collecting, processing and storing ex situ seed collections of crop wild relatives. A mixture of theoretical and practical field-based elements added up to an insightful and enlightening experience.

Technical details behind collecting and long-term conservation were discussed during theory lessons, including how the relationships between temperature, seed moisture and longevity can impact the storage of seeds; how to target areas and species for collection; and how to use collecting guides.


Dr. Gold shares her expertise with participants

For one participant, the course beefed up skills through the whole collecting process: “ensuring seed quality by knowing seed behaviour, using psychometric terms and charts, preparing a seed collection trip through knowing what materials and equipment are needed. Making quality collections so that by the knowledge which I learned I can collect good quality seeds for long-term conservation.”

Practical field exercises saw participants assessing potential collections through population, phenology, physical quality and seed quantity in order to choose an appropriate sampling strategy for a particular species. They also made quality field collections of seeds and herbarium vouchers with associated data, and went on to chose appropriate post harvest seed handling methods. Lastly, participants got to grips with the Seed Collecting Guides. The CWR project provides the Guides to all national programs, including data such as identification tips, flowering and fruiting time and suggested methods for collection.

As a result of the course, participants are now able to plan their own seed collecting trips, handle collected seeds appropriately in the field and laboratory and dry and store seeds safely. The experience illustrated the importance of skill sharing in crop wild relative seed collecting and conserving, in Africa and every continent.

Feedback from participants

Participant feedback from the course highlights the importance of training and international partnerships, with the majority of participants strongly agreeing that the course has improved their knowledge, skills and understanding of how to collect, conserve and manage high quality ex situ collections of wild plant seeds in order to make a contribution towards global targets to conserve plant species. “I am grateful for the privilege, thanks to the Millennium Seed Bank, Kew and the Global Crop Diversity Trust”, said one participant, and “it’s good to have continuous strengthening through such training, links and contacts to fully address the project objectives”.

The training courses are – and always will be – an extremely valuable service provided by all involved, as the importance of sharing knowledge, technology and experience is paramount to the research and conservation of seeds.


Story written by: Danielle Haddad

reblogged from

Global CWR Project quick update

The Crop Wild Relatives ( team has been busy over the past few months, check out what we’ve been up to in our short news.

Dr. Eastwood and Miss Haddad at the NHM Science Uncovered event

Dr. Eastwood and Miss Haddad at the NHM Science Uncovered event

Science Uncovered Event
Dr. Ruth Eastwood (Project Coordinator) and Danielle Haddad (Communications Assistant) attended the popular Science Uncovered event at the Natural History Museum on Friday 26th September 2014. The event is held in 300 cities across Europe and provides the public with an opportunity to “get up close and personal with cutting-edge science and the people who make it happen”. There was an amazing array of scientific stalls ranging from all things creepy crawly to knitting your own human cells and even 3D printing of viruses! Pretty cool stuff! The project had a successful evening at the event, with a fun and engaging stall aimed at promoting and connecting with the public. The public were able to discuss and engage with us using interactive props including a world-map shower curtain, seed specimens, various varieties of vegetables and fruit, a mini-seed bank as well as a Seed Collecting Guide. Games were played with the public to find the origin of certain foods such as baked beans, millet and wheat, resulting in some very interesting answers! The atmosphere was buzzing and very inspiring with lots of really keen members of the public from various age ranges to chat with.

Incoming Seeds
On the 23/10/2014 the MSB received an exciting delivery of crop wild relative seeds from Italy and from their partner CIAT. The delivery included a selection of seeds from the genus Phaseolus that comes from the family Fabaceae which are commonly referred to as wild beans. The seeds included Phaseolus vulgaris, Phaseolus lunatus and Phaseolus leptostachyus and were placed in the dry room under quarantine, the first step of the well established system here at the seed bank, which is vital towards drying the seeds to a low moisture content to reach equilibrium and to protect the seeds against live insects. It can take several days to weeks depending on seed size to reach this equilibrium.

ciat incoming seeds

Seeds in quarantine

The seeds then made their way to the cleaning station which is done to promote the future use of the seeds and reduce disease risks. Cleaning is done carefully using a variety of methods to avoid damaging the seeds and there are many factors involved in the process including extracting the seeds from fruit or capsules. During the seed cleaning stage, seeds can also have visual checks, x-rays and cut-tests done in order to find out the overall quality of the seeds, and to determine whether some are empty, incompletely-formed or infested with insects. The tests are important to perform as any seeds that are empty or have damaged embryos will not germinate. Once the first two stages have been completed, the seeds then make their way to the cold store where they are

incoming seeds

Phaseolus vulgaris

firstly dried to equilibrium of 15% relative humidity, then kept at -20°C which puts the seeds into hibernation mode. There are various sizes of glass jars depending on the size of seeds and amount, however, within each a small sachet of silica gel impregnated with an indicator that changes from orange to green when moist is paced that monitors the effectiveness of the container seal during storage.

After one month storage in the -20°C cold store, seeds are brought out for germination assessments which are considered to be the most reliable way to measure seed viability. Roughly 50 seeds are used for testing, but with smaller collection samples often 10-20 are used, the seeds are sewn onto petri dishes are coated with agar and information about the climatic habitat of the species is used to incubate the seeds at the right temperature. The seeds are checked weekly with any that have germinated being recorded and discarded, once germination has completed any remaining seeds are checked visually and through a cut test to determine whether or not they were full, empty or mouldy.

The information gathered during germination testing is really important because it can be used when needed to turn the seeds into plants that can then be used in research, restoration work and even reintroduction. Different species require different germination conditions and it’s up to the scientists based at the MSBP to unlock those conditions using their vast knowledge skills. With cwr, the assessments can take up to a few weeks to unlock the secret conditions required. Once the first germination assessment has been done, the seeds will only be brought out for re-testing every five to ten years in relation their life expectancy.

The seeds have various pathways once they have been banked, such as restoration projects, including the main purpose of the distribution of seeds to research facilities that conduct research on the samples with the aim of creating more adaptive and resilient varieties for current and future climatic challenges.

On the 23rd of October, Dr. Ruth Eastwood held a seminar to researchers and students to Warwick Crop Centre, part of the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences which delivers research and training for land-based industries. The talk which was much enjoyed was based on the project and the adaptation of agriculture to climate change, and highlights the need to engage more with a range of audiences.

Twitter action
We would like to take the time to say a very big thank you to all our followers, new and old for the support on Twitter which we’ve been busily updating. It’s been so wonderful to interact with such a wide audience range and our aim is to interact more through tweeting pictures, updates, partners and international related news.


Written by: Danielle Haddad


Global CWR Project Pre-breeding update

Eggplant wild relative.

Eggplant wild relative.

The crop wild relative project is of course not just about collecting, but also includes activities to prepare the CWR material for use in breeding programs. By the end of 2013, we consulted with breeders and other experts on the strategies for using CWR in the improvement of the following crops: potato, sorghum, beans, sunflower, wheat, rice, barley, eggplant, sweet potato, alfalfa, lentil, banana, cowpea, pea, apple, and carrot. These consultations are now guiding the development of projects on CWR pre-breeding and evaluation. This will be a diverse set of projects, some of which focusing more on germplasm development, whereas others have a stronger focus on the evaluation of CWR or already developed pre-bred line for traits of interest in the context of climate change adaptation.

Two pilot pre-breeding projects started already back in 2012 on rice and sunflowers and four further projects on potato, lentil, eggplant and carrot were initiated since then. All prebreeding projects contain a substantial capacity building component and are partnerships between institutions in developing countries as well as developed countries and/or CGIAR institutes:

Eggplant: Horticulture Crop Research and Development Institute (HCRDI, Sri Lanka) Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV, Spain) and Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny (UFH, Cote d’Ivoire)

Carrot: Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU, Bangladesh), University of Sargodha (UOS, Pakistan) and USDA Vegetable Crops Research Unit (USA)

Lentil: Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bangladesh), Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR, Ethiopia), Harran University (Turkey), Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (CSIC, Spain), International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA, Morocco), Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC, Nepal), University of Leon (Spain) and University of Saskatchewan (Canada)

Potato: Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA, Brazil), International Potato Center (CIP, Peru) and Uruguayan Agricultural Research Institute (INIA, Uruguay)

Rice: Cornell University (USA) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, The Philippines)

Sunflower: University of British Columbia (UBC, Canada) and National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda (NARO, Uganda)

We are excited about the progress to date of all five of these projects and we will share the results and outcomes through the project website, as soon as they become available.

Story written by: Hannes Dempewolf

Global CWR Project partners and news

Global CWR Project partners and their news

Collecting Avena ventricosa from Axera area Collecting Avena ventricosa from Axera area

The project is currently working with five country partners – Cyprus, Georgia, Italy, Portugal and Vietnam – as well as negotiating with even more potential international partners.

Seed collecting is off to a good start this year at the Agricultural Research Institute of Cyprus, and judging by the photos it certainly looks like they have a busy time ahead collecting crop wild relatives amongst the beauty of their country.

Various collections have already been made, including Lathyrus annus, Lathyrus casius, Avena sterilis, Avena ventricosa, Daucus carota subsp. maxima, Hordeum bulbosum, Lens orientalis, Medicago litoralis and Pisum sativum

Lathyrus annuus from Linou Lathyrus annuus from Linou

Lathyrus is within the legume family Fabaceae and is a genus of flowering plant species referred to as sweet peas and vetchlings, which are found native to temperate areas. Many species are grown and cultivated as garden plants due to the very pretty and delicate flowers they produce in a huge array of single colours and bicoloured patterns. In fact, there is nothing better than a vase full of sweet peas whose delicacy, fragrance and prettiness can lighten up the darkest of days. More importantly, however, some species such as the Indian pea are grown for food. The peas and pods of these are consumed, although other species’ seeds are poisonous and care should be taken to avoid them. Lathyrus annus (pictured left) also goes by its common name of annual vetchling, and is native to countries in Northern Africa, South-Central Asia, Southern Europe, Western Asia and Western Europe.

Daucus carota maxima from Pisouri area Daucus carota subsp. maxima from Pisouri area

Daucus carota subsp. maxima (pictured to the right), as its name suggests, is a wild relative of carrot and is from the family Apiaceae. It is also referred to as Queen Anne’s lace, and as you would imagine with lace, it is extremely beautiful and delicate. It also produces an edible root that should be eaten young – any later and it will become woody. The root itself is quite different from that of the cultivated variety, and its appearance is white and narrow with an acrid taste. The seeds contain an essential oil, and when ripe the umbels curve up to protect them in a delicate global structure. The essential oils can be used for fragrances and for treatment of dry skin. In total, carrot has 17 primary (wild or weedy forms) as well as 7 secondary (more distant) related species.

The importance of collecting these crop wild relatives is to identify genes and traits they have which can be used for adapting agriculture to climate change. The wild collections may contain genes that will make crops tougher, more resistant to pests and diseases and able to adapt to a future of ever-changing climate.

Story written by: Danielle Haddad
Pictures: The Agricultural Research Institute of Cyprus


Wild Herbs of Crete. Wild Carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace. Dacus Carota ssp. maxima (Last accessed 20/10/2014)

Crop Wild Relatives and Climate Change (Last accessed 31/1/2014)

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions. Full website terms and conditions

Training Course: Collecting & Long-Term Conservation of Crop Wild Relative Seeds

In the following Q&A, Dr Eastwood, Crop Wild Relative (CWR) Project Coordinator from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) talks to us about the collecting, protecting and selecting CWR “with the aim of ensuring our major crops can be adapted to grow in our changing climates.”

The “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change” project is a ten-year project divided into three phases.  In Phase I a Gap Analysis was carried out to indicate where CWR still needed to be collected. In Phase II, the current phase, project leaders – Crop Trust and MSB –work with partners from around the globe to secure high-quality seed collections. Phase III will see the use of CWR material.

1. Following the Gap Analysis results and the successful Training Course in Vietnam, the CWR Project is getting ready for a new capacity building effort — this time in Africa. Please tell us more about this.

Our job now is to work with partners to secure high quality seed-collections across the globe.

We are holding a training course on collecting and conserving crop wild relatives (CWR) in Kampala, Uganda in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Organisation.  Interest in receiving training was very high and participants will be joining us from 8 African countries.

The week-long training course will take place during the week beginning 11th August and kicks off the African regional work in the project.”

It is important that the skills of seed collecting and storage can be shared. The use of material to plant breeders and farmers depends on the quality of collection and storage. For Kew and the Crop Trust it is wonderful to be strengthening ties with the participant institutions.

2. Tell us about the actual day-to-day training course activities.

The course is a mix of fundamental theory and applied hands-on training.  It is led by experienced experts from the MSB. Participants will learn how to plan collecting trips, assess populations for collection, collect field passport data, and use a drum drying kit and store collections safely, among many other things.

Participants will become familiar with the national Collecting Guides, which the project is providing to all national programs. These include identification tips, fruiting time data and suggested methods for collection.

Field activities will put the knowledge directly into practise. For example: participants will carry out cut tests on seeds to assess whether they are healthy.

3. Once the training week is over, what happens next? 

We are already working with African partner organisations to plan how they will collect their national CWR.

CWR collecting gaps in Africa for the CWR of project priority crops

CWR collecting gaps in Africa for the CWR of project priority crops

The collecting ambition of each country program depends on the number of species in the country and how well they have been collected to date. In total the project aims to collect over 6,000 accessions.

When the participants attending the course return to their countries, they will be directly involved in implementing these national programs.  It is envisaged that the first collecting expeditions will start in the autumn.

4. Once the collecting is done, what then?

The collected and cleaned material will be stored in the national genebank and a sample will be sent to the MSB for long-term safely duplication and for distribution to researchers and pre-breeders.

5. Looking at the bigger picture, please tell us why is it important to go after CWR?

“Food security in the light of climate change is one of the greatest challenges the world faces.” 

We don’t yet understand all the effects this will have so we need to have all options secured. One tool which has been show to contribute is improving crops using CWR.

CWRs have not gone through the domestication bottlenecks that have contributed to the limited genetic diversity within our crops. What’s more, they have continued to evolve in varied environments and climates. And it is known that they hold adaptive traits, some of which are unexpected and can only be discovered through breeding programs.

There is urgency to this work not only because the effects of climate change are already starting to be seen, but because the vital building blocks to allow us to adapt – the CWR – are threatened in their natural environments.

“There is huge pressure on use of land for agriculture, housing and recreation, all of which impacts negatively on biodiversity.”

6. Effects of climate change are predicted to be felt most strongly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yes, and CWR of Aubergine, Finger Millet, Pearl Millet, Rice and Sorghum – all of which are found in Africa — could be used to adapt agriculture.

Food security is a global issue and no country is self-sufficient for its food.  Thus the CWR project is not just working in Africa, it has a global outlook.  CWR from other regions of the world could also help to improve African agriculture.

7. Can you tell us what other efforts that have been carried out by the CWR project?

Last December a similar training course was carried out for Asian partners in Viet Nam and from this project plans for collecting are well-developed.

Collecting has already started in Portugal, Cyprus and Italy.

The first 100 collections have already been received at the MSB and many more are expected in the autumn.

8. Any last words?

“This project is unusual in its scope. It will not only secure CWR but will start to unlock their potential through pre-breeding programs.”

CWR hold solutions for the future and through the support of the Norwegian government the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are able to work with partners to leave a legacy of potential for the next generations.

Related Links

Video: Ruth on CWR

Video: Jonas on Collecting

Video: En Español: Nora Castañeda

Video: beyond the gardens

Blog post: seed collecting training in Asia

Blog post: seed drying

Seed Drying for the Successful Long-term Storage of Crop Wild Relatives

Keeping seeds for generations to come

Crop wild relative Vicia hyaeniscyamus may useful traits to make faba bean more resilient (Photo: Colin Khoury)

Crop wild relative Vicia hyaeniscyamus may have useful traits to make faba bean more resilient (Photo: Colin Khoury)

Crop wild relatives are a powerful tool we have to adapt agriculture to climate change and worryingly, many of them are currently threatened and in need of conservation. Crop wild relatives can be credited for traits that make our crops resistant to diseases such as grassy stunt virus in rice and black sigatoka in banana. Crop wild relatives have also been used to increase the yield of wheat and breed drought and salinity tolerance in barley. (See examples here and here).

Crops such as potato, rice, lentil and banana are major food sources for millions of people all over the world and by increasing their genetic diversity and resilience, through the use of crop wild relatives, more people will have access to the food they need. That is why the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank are collecting the seeds of crop wild relatives. This 10-year project is aptly called Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change.


Global gap richness of high priority species for all crop gene pools combined (Photo: CIAT).

Global gap richness of high priority species for all crop gene pools combined (Photo: CIAT).

Using the results of a gap-analysis generated by CIAT, partners of the project are collecting crop wild relatives of 29 of most globally important food crops and making them available to breeders so that more resilient varieties will be created.

The project is in the thick of the collecting phase and before long we should have an impressive portfolio of crop wild relatives collected, protected and prepared for the development of new, better adapted, crop varieties. Proper handling of the seeds is important for maximising their longevity in storage. When subjected to certain conditions, seeds can remain in storage for tens and sometimes hundreds of years and still be able to germinate into a living plant. Luckily this means that the seeds can come to our aid against the unforeseen challenges of future.

There are two crucial components to successful seed storage: drying and freezing. If you want to store seeds and delay their germination, you need to keep them dry. Freezing them increases their longevity even further by slowing down metabolic reactions in the cells of the seed.

Seed storage and agriculture

Humans use this adaptation of seed dormancy to their advantage. Since the dawn of agriculture farmers have been safeguarding seeds to ensure the harvest for the following year. Conservation of plant genetic resources, including crop wild relatives, also allows breeders to develop new crop varieties that are tastier or more resistant to disease.

Seed drying

Once seeds have been collected keeping them dry is the number one priority for every seed collector. There are a few tricks of the trade that every good seed collector keeps with them.

1. Bag it up

Seed collectors think carefully about the kind of bag they choose to keep their collections in. Cloth, paper or plastic bags – it depends on what seeds you are collecting. (Read more here)

Image of spiky crop wild relative of oats, Avena sterilis, being put into a paper bag

Spiky crop wild relative of oats, Avena sterilis, being put into a paper bag (Photo: RBG Kew)

2. Keep an eye on the weather

Besides checking to see whether you need sunscreen or your waterproofs, looking up the climate of the region, and even the weather forecast for the day is an essential part of the planning for a successful seed collecting trip. E.g. Some seeds are particularly susceptible to deterioration from moist air conditions, such as those collected during the rainy season. These ‘wet seeds’ need to be dried as soon as possible and this can be done by:

  • spreading them out in a thin layer on some newspaper in the shade
  • raising them off the ground to allow air to circulate beneath
  • repacking them before nightfall to minimise moisture absorption as the
    ambient humidity rises

Every seed counts so we cannot afford to be cavalier with our post-harvest handling!

3. The big blue drum

One way that the Millennium Seed Bank helps partner countries to make high quality seed collections when there is no dry-room nearby is to send them a large, 60 litre, blue drum containing sachets filled with dried-out silica gel.


Image of a Low tech seed drying drum

Low tech seed drying drum (Photo: RBG Kew)

Shipped to partners of the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project, it is part of a ready-to-go tool kit for the perfect seed collecting expedition. Dissection kits, hand lenses, herbarium presses, collecting guides, GPS, and a first aid kit are among some of the goodies you will find inside. To find out more about how silica is used to dry seeds read here.


Image of a Collecting guide for the crop wild relatives in Mozambique

Collecting guide for the crop wild relatives in Mozambique (Photo: RBG Kew)





Back at the Seed Bank

Seeds can spend up to 6 months in the dry room, only taken out for the brief time it takes for them to be cleaned and counted. Only when the seeds have reached 15% relative humidity are they ready to go into cold storage in the -20°C seed vault.


Image of the dry room at the Millennium Seed Bank

The dry room at the Millennium Seed Bank (Photo: RBG Kew)


A final word on rebel recalcitrant seeds

Some seeds, such as mango and Coco de Mer, cannot survive the drying and freezing process and are therefore difficult to store. These seeds are known as recalcitrant or unorthodox seeds and at the moment their only hope (for ex situ seed conservation) is cryopreservation in liquid nitrogen.

Related Links

The importance of seed drying for long-term seed storage

The wonders of silica for seed drying

Global Crop Diversity Trust

International Center for Tropical Agriculture

post by Sarah Cody, Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, Kew

Banding together: A global community committed to biodiversity and food security

Written by: Melissa Reichwage and reposted from CIAT

“The challenges for agriculture are vast, but we do have a basic structure to build on in order to find solutions. We do have a functioning global partnership,” said Marie Haga in a presentation to the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations earlier this month.

Haga leads the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an essential funding mechanism to ensure the long-term conservation and use of crop diversity for food security worldwide. In short, the Trust protects one of the world’s least recognized but most valuable resources: crop diversity, the raw material for improving and adapting crops.


Partners for resilience

The formidable challenge is to ensure food security for a growing population in a more sustainable manner, under the pressures expected due to climate change.

Humanity must develop a resilient agricultural system that can tolerate changing weather conditions, that can deal with new pests and diseases, that does not exacerbate climate change and environmental degradation, and which sustainably produces sufficient and nutritious food.

This entails adapting crops to climate change. To adapt crops researchers utilize the genetic diversity in old crop varieties as well as wild plants related to crops (crop wild relatives) which contain important traits, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance that can be hard to find in modern cultivated varieties.

Achieving resilience requires major research partnership coordination to combine the collective knowledge we have of the types of traits different crops will need under climate change – such as heat, drought, or salinity tolerance – as well as where these traits may be found in diverse genetic resources.

Crop breeders require information and germplasm from multiple sources and countries in order to locate and use these traits to improve crops. No country is self-sufficient in this regard, so global exchange of genetic resources is vital.

The crown jewels of international agriculture

The Center for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) maintains a genebank at its headquarters in Colombia. With a total of more than 65,000 plant samples, this facility safeguards the world’s largest collections of beans and cassava along with their wild relatives, as well as tropical forages. These collections conserve a great wealth of the world’s agrobiodiversity and make this diversity available to the global community.

ciat genebank

“Today, thousands of improved crop varieties are growing in farmers’ fields that can trace their roots to CGIAR genebanks,” Haga noted.

Norway – where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects the world’s seed samples deep inside a mountain on a remote island – is an important investor in CIAT’s efforts to collect, conserve, and enhance the use of crop wild relatives.

Thanks to contributions from the Government of Norway (MOFA), administered by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership of the Royal Botanic Garden Kew and the Crop Trust, CIAT is helping to advance a synergistic endeavor – the Crop Wild Relatives project to adapt agriculture to climate change. The project is entering a new phase to build upon existing research, capitalize extensive relationships created with experts worldwide, and to maximize the impact of these resources.

“It’s an honor for CIAT to be a part of this colossal global partnership. Seeds, crops, information, and tools established at the Center are being used all around the world for the benefit of our collective future,” said Colin Khoury, Crop Wild Relatives project staff at CIAT.

Related stories:
CGIAR Consortium partners with Global Crop Diversity Trust to revitalize genebanks
Study on human diets whets the appetite of global media
Just warming up: Cassava isn’t afraid of a changing climate
This crazy world

Photos by Neil Palmer (CIAT).


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