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

By Jessica Leeder
Globe and Mail

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.

“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.

Read the full post at Globe and Mail 

7 responses to “Wild relatives of common crops may hold key to future of food

  1. I know cross-breeding is not to be confused with genetic engineering, but I cannot explain it. Can someone help? Cross-breeding (hybridization) is not an entirely natural process either, is it, since it comes about through human intervention.

    • Crossbreeding does occur in nature when two animals closely related are living in the same area. They can produce fertile offspring and if the new traits are not dominant nothing much will come of the mating. Now if the new traits give it an advantage in it’s environment then the animal will likely have the advantage during mating season and it’s new traits will eventually become the dominant traits of the species for that area. In nature we see this naturally occurring among bears, elephants, deer and other creatures.

      In domesticated animals we see how humans chose the dominant traits for their environment and purposes and bred them through a natural process. Humans used to selectively breed the animal so it would be comfortable and thrive in it’s current environment, based on whether it be a hot or cold, wet or dry environment. Also choosing animals for the best tasting meat, milk, cream production and clothing purposes. Not all animals can be domesticated. They must naturally contain six traits for domestication, which I have forgotten what they are.

      Now of days some animals are being bred or “modified” based solely on production with no regard for the well being of the animal. Where we once needed these animals healthy and happy for our own survival, they have been reduced to just another inventory item on the factory farm.

      I hope this isn’t too long and makes some sense.

      • shoot, this is hardly lengthy, dear Mike.

        The only thing I’d tweak is in your description of natural genetic modification. If the new trait confers a survival advantage — that is, those individuals with a new trait now more readily make it to mating age than do those without the new trait, then that new trait will become more prevalent in the population.

        when you get into dominant vs. recessive, what matters in the above discussion is whether the trait is expressed, i.e. “phenotype” (be it dominant or recessive). If its expression confers a survival advantage, then those with that trait will eventually outnumber those without it.

        for example, a recessive genetic trait among humans is polydactyly – more than five fingers and toes. There was an ancient civilization where most of the population were polydactyls, even tho the gene is recessive. (Five fingers is dominant, like brown eyes are dominant.) But, in that case, the culture favored the trait, and so people sought to mate with polydactyls, thus increasing the allele frequency.

        In fact, the technical definition of evolution is change in allele frequency in a population.

        btw, I once dated a polydactyl, tho, the extra fingers and toes were clipped at birth, and then again later.

    • what I would add in particular response to this question is that genetic engineering uses genes from other species, and most often, genes from other kingdoms. When humans breed different plants or animals for a particular trait, they are using plants or animals of the same species, or within the same Family or Class.

      (Remember the hierarchy of life as we now describe it: Kevin Poured Coffee On Father’s Good Suit: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Another factoid that goes into this is that scientists now describe 6 Kingdoms: Plants, Animals, Fungi, Protists, Eubacteria and Archeabacteria. Bacteria is in a different Kingdom from Animals or Plants.)

      the technical definition of species is that those individuals would mate (or crossbreed) with each other in nature and produce viable offspring.

      so, like when humans breed horses with donkeys, they get a sterile mule. Mule is not a new species because it cannot reproduce itself.

      but when scientists inject plant DNA with DNA from some bacterium, they’re going way beyond anything that would ever happen in nature. (The potential risks of such genetic manipulation are found in numerous articles here and elsewhere, as well as in countless books and films.)

  2. Good thinking. Shhhh! They mustn’t notice us doing this.

  3. Thanks Rady and Mike. Obviously I have a lot to learn, and I hope you don’t mind the questions. I was thinking mainly of plants but I guess the same principles apply to animals. Seems clear that natural evolution is the best thing because it results in organisms best suited for survival, which presumably includes us as part of the natural world. Then we start fooling around with the plants and animals in various ways — short of GM — because we like some kinds better than others, and presumably this is also good, usually, but can also have undesirable results if the breeding is done for the wrong reasons (i.e., mass production). Enter GM and the whole process gets out of whack, bad stuff happens that would NOT happen through non-GM breeding.
    Problems caused by “bad breeding” (e.g., heavy-breasted chickens and turkeys that can’t walk or reproduce naturally) are one thing, but GM is much worse because it makes much more radical changes (and has all the bad consequences that I still have to read more about).
    Am I getting the general idea?

  4. Pingback: » MADGE Digest – Get an update on GM Food HERE!

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