Every day, our planet and many of our brothers and sisters with whom we share it are in danger. Just look at the news. Wars continue to be waged in the Middle East, drought is forcing millions into hunger in Southern and Eastern Africa, and forests in South Asia are falling victim to deforestation. For many of us, these disasters seem to be occurring in a distant world. But if you think that you will not also be impacted by these events, it is time to think again.
Many of these regions are home to wild species that are distant relatives of the foods we eat every day - from bananas and beans to the wheat in our bread. These crop wild relatives contain a range of traits that are becoming increasingly important for our food crops to have, as the rising temperatures and irregular weather patterns brought on by climate change take hold. This includes genes that confer resistance to diseases, or drier climates. But a new study has shown that over 70 per cent of the wild relatives of important food crops are under-represented in genebanks. This means plant scientists don't have easy access to genes that could be bred into our everyday foods, and make them more resilient to future shocks and stresses that threaten our food supplies.
The study, "Global Conservation Priorities for Crop Wild Relatives", published in Nature Plants this week, not only quantifies just how many important wild species are running low in genebanks, but also maps where they can be found in the world. This one-of-a-kind "atlas" is now being used by scientists all over the globe to collect samples of these high priority plants. However, the results show that many important species are in areas suffering from civil strife, deforestation and climate change, making the need to act in these areas all the more more urgent. Maybe scientists will never get to see them at all, let alone realize their potential.
The "fertile crescent" of the Middle East, spanning modern-day Syria and Iraq through to Egypt, is so called because it is one of the oldest and richest of agricultural lands. But now, civil strife is destroying these lands, and the genetic diversity they support. According to the study, 49 high priority wild species related to crops including wheat and lentils can be found in areas of Syria affected by civil war.
South East Asia was revealed to be a hotspot for disappearing wild species of banana - but continued deforestation in this region is making it difficult to collect and preserve them. Banana is an important source of income for smallholder farmers all over the world, and is periodically affected by a deadly fungus, which its wild relatives may be able to resist. Crop wild relatives have already made many crops more resilient in this way. For example, when grassy stunt virus was attacking rice fields in Asia in the 1970s, improved varieties that contained genes from the wild rice species Oryza nivara that provided resistance to the disease were bred and released. This helped thousands of farmers combat the disease and avoid big losses in production.
In sub-Saharan Africa, prolonged drought is currently a dominant threat. The African continent is rich in wild species of sorghum, which is going to be key in the region's fight against warmer temperatures due to its drought tolerance. As many as 88 per cent of the wild relatives of sorghum were designated high priority by the study, and can be found in the Sahel belt and across the East of sub-Saharan Africa.
Disasters around the world could have a long-term effect on our food supplies. Collection and preservation efforts, particularly in fragile areas, should be supported with stable, long-term funding. For example, the team at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) successfully sped up its work to duplicate its seed collection housed in Syria when civil war escalated. When ICARDA was forced to leave the country, 100 per cent of the seeds were safely preserved outside of Syria, providing an effective insurance policy for plant breeding work that will bolster future food supplies.
Maintaining back-ups of these back-ups, at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is another important measure we can take. The icy conditions ion that arctic island allow seeds to be kept fresh for decades, even without power. Currently, the vault holds more than 860,000 samples, and has the capacity to store 2.5 billion seeds. Finally, plant breeders around the world need the necessary funding, equipment and policies to move genetic material around the globe.
This mapping exercise of where high priority wild species can be found has given the world a plan for action. If we have the foresight to act on it, we can secure our food supply for future generations, despite all we see in the news.