Crop wild relatives help adapt agriculture to climate change

Wild Sunflowers (Credit: Luigi Guarino, Global Crop Diversity Trust)

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has begun work to collect seed from the wild relatives of 26 crop plants as their genetic diversity may enable us to adapt agriculture to future climates. Guest blogger Dr Ruth Eastwood is Crop Wild Relatives Project co-ordinator, based at RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place, UK.

The challenges to food security from climate change are wide ranging, partially unknown and un-quantified.  However, the world is already recording changes in climate and the intensity and number of extreme weather events.  Climatic change is likely to shift and decrease suitable growing ranges for many crops although a few may see increased ranges.  It is predicted that without adaptation future potato yields would drop by up to a third.  Additionally climatic conditions contribute to the occurrence, survival and spread of pests and diseases. These combined make the outlook for the future bleak.  There is a ray of hope on the horizon in the form of a global ten year project ‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ which sees a collaboration of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.  The project will utilise the greatest source of untapped diversity, crop wild relatives (CWR) to discover the adaptive characteristics which our crops need to allow challenges of climate change.

CWR are important because unlike most of our major crops, they have not been subject to genetic bottlenecks and they are distributed across a diverse range of habitats.  CWR have proven use in breeding particularly for pest and disease resistance but also for a wide range of improvements including drought and cold resistance, introduction of perenniality and early flowering.  They have even been used to reconstruct hybrid crops e.g. so called synthetic wheats, which hold a wider range of genetic diversity than the crop and may be easier to hybridise with other crop wild relatives thus unlocking access to further diversity.

Over the coming year Kew will use data from its herbarium and seed bank holdings to contribute to a gap analysis of crop wild relatives. It will then, through the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), collect these species and pass them to specialist pre-breeders.  The Global Crop Diversity Trust have and continue to hold specialist breeder workshops to identify the breeding priorities for each genepool which will lead to the mitigation of the effects of climate change and contribute to global food security in the future.

The project focuses on the wild relatives of 26 crops covered by Annex 1 of the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The crops are alfalfa, apple, bambara groundnut, banana, barley, bean, carrot, chickpea, cowpea, eggplant, faba bean, finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato, vetch and wheat.


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