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”– undomesticated plant cousins that could contain secrets to making food crops more productive and resilient.

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 The Global Crop Diversity Trust in partnership with the Millennium Seed Bank, Kew, less than half of these plants are sufficiently conserved in the world’s gene banks, meaning scientists are missing out of significant opportunities for breeding more productive, climate-smart crops.

Richness of sunflower CWR species
Richness of sunflower CWR species

Using a technique called gap analysis, scientists studied the wild relatives of 29 important food and forage crops, including global staples such as rice, wheat, potato, and banana, as well as regionally critical crops such as pigeonpea, lentil, sunflower, and sweet potato. They found that of the 455 wild relatives identified, over half are seriously underrepresented in gene banks. Fortunately, the new findings also show where they might be found in the wild. With the new information, national agricultural institutes and interested conservation groups in collaboration with international organizations will head into the wild around the world 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.

The results were recently reported on in Nature News and indicate that collecting for genetic resources conservation is still an urgent concern across the globe. Jane Toll, Project Manager at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, adds, “This study has thrown up some surprises. Crop wild relatives in some areas in Australia, Europe and the USA need to be collected just as much as those in regions of Africa, Asia and South America.” This is an important finding, highlighting the important role that the wild plant resources in industrialized countries have to contribute to food security worldwide.

Adding urgency to collecting priorities, some of the regions where the wild species might be found are already at risk, with climate change itself, urbanization, invasive species, and the spread of industrial agriculture threatening unique habitats. For example, in Costa Rica, suburban expansion around the capital San Jose threatens populations of the closest wild relative of common bean – a crop grown by millions globally.

Summary results are available on the project website, with an interactive map of the results coming soon.