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.
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