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Wild relatives of common crops may hold key to future of food

A worldwide search for the wild kin of the most commonly consumed food crops kicked off Friday in Rome.

Billed as the largest ever initiative of its kind, a decade-long hunt was launched for the hardy, weed-like relatives of 23 global food crops, including rice, beans and bananas. The ultimate goal of the initiative, led by the conservationist Global Crop Diversity Trust and an alliance of national agriculture research institutes, is to build a cache of genetically diverse descendants of essential food crops threatened by climate change.

Those seeds will be used in a crossbreeding pipeline in which wild and domestic plant varieties will be married to infuse offspring with a blend of genetic traits tailored to withstand the effects of climate change.

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"It's becoming abundantly clear that the crops in the field are going to face serious challenges in remaining productive in the face of climate variability and change," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the trust, a public organization created in part by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

"All our crops were originally developed from wild species," Dr. Fowler said. "We need to go back to the wild to find those relatives of our crops that can thrive in the climates of the future. And we need to do it while those plants can still be found."

The concept of borrowing desirable genetic traits from heritage plant varieties to bolster more sensitive domesticated crops under environmental duress is not new. But the wild relatives of food crops have never been comprehensively collected or conserved, meaning plant breeders who tap into gene banks for troubleshooting help are missing a huge slate of options. And as climate change and urbanization trends continue, those wild varieties face an increasing risk of extinction.

Figuring out how to systematically collect seed samples has flummoxed experts for years, including Dr. Fowler, who said he privately worried collecting was "something we would never engage in because the world is a big place. Where do you start?"

The route to that answer was paved by a $50-million (U.S.) donation from the Norwegian government, which is funding the initial search for 23 priority crops.

"We are taking a step back and challenging the lazy assumption that new crop varieties will just materialize out of thin air," said Erik Solheim, Norway's Minister of the Environment and International Development.

Critical to the search is a sophisticated digital-mapping system stuffed with public data on a range of metrics, including deforestation, road networks, development, drought and habitat destruction. Seed collectors can use the system to narrow the scope of their search to a manageable pool of likely locales.

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"We have a methodology that allows us to say where, precisely on the map, we might go to find traits that we don't already have and that might be endangered," Dr. Fowler said.

Aiding the search will be teams from Britain's Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, a world-renowned science organization that is home to the Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The bank has so far collected seeds from 30,000 wild flowering plant species, representing 10 per cent of the world's stock.

The partners have yet to determine which of the 23 priority crop varieties they'll pursue first. When collection begins, samples will be conserved in a number of sites around the world, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Genetic material will be shared openly and will be "a game changer," Dr. Fowler predicted.

"We're going to find many, many valuable traits. If we find one, two at the most of virtually any of the crops on our list … it could easily yield $50-million in benefits in the first year," he said.

An example he gave could address the temperature sensitivity of high-yielding rice. Most flower during the day, but even a one-degree change in temperature can cut yields by 10 per cent. Fluctuations of several degrees can quickly add up to big losses. Some wild-rice relatives flower at night. Incorporating that characteristic into farmed rice "could save millions of tons of rice, and thousands of lives," Dr. Fowler said.

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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