Story at a glance

  • Food security in the time of climate change will require crops that can withstand harsh, unpredictable conditions.
  • But our most productive crops may lack the diverse genetic toolkit needed to adapt to these new challenges.
  • To find the genes necessary to ensure future food security, a team of scientists spent years in dangerous, remote locations around the world collecting seeds from the wild relatives of important crops.

A squad of 100 travelling seed collectors have spent the last six years hunting for the wild relatives of important global crops in some of the most remote and difficult to access corners of the world. Their labor has brought back the seeds of more than 370 wild cousins of agricultural species, which can bolster food security with their genetic diversity as the planet’s climate becomes ever more unpredictable.

The scientists, hailing from 25 countries, had to venture far off the grid, at times making their way on horseback, canoe and even atop elephants to bring back wild versions of crops such as rice, barley, beans and potatoes, all of which feed millions, the Guardian reports.

The importance of these wild relatives is their wildness itself. Domesticated crops have been selected across countless generations for high yields, nutrition and other qualities, and this endless fine-tuning has lowered their genetic diversity. That lack of genetic diversity can make them more vulnerable to disease, climate change and pests. But in the wild, plants must fend for themselves and so collecting their seeds gives scientists and plant breeders access to the genes underlying the diverse adaptations that allow them to survive. 

The ability to endow our inbred, workhorse crops with fresh genetic adaptations may prove essential to continuing to feed the world’s nearly 8 billion people as climate change alters global rainfall patterns, increases drought and jacks up extreme temperatures. Without dramatic climate action, agricultural production could fall by up to 30 percent by 2050.

The collectors working on the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) project spent 2,973 days in the field and gathered 4,644 seeds from 371 species. The haul included 28 globally significant crops, among them were nine species of banana, 12 bean species, 21 wild types of barley, two wild potatoes and four species of eggplant. 

The mission to find these wild species was made all the more urgent by the risk of extinction due to deforestation, expanding human settlements, conflict and climate change. 

To prioritize the efforts, researchers identified the crops that had the most dangerously low levels of genetic diversity. The only plants that can easily donate novel genes to these crops via crossbreeding are their own relatives, which is what makes finding them in the wild so important. The trips into the field to find these wild relatives took the collectors deep into Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. 

“The expeditions were not a walk in the park. They were perilous at times and physically demanding, with heat, dust, sweat and danger from wild animals — from blood-sucking leeches to tigers. The stories these seed collectors brought back from the field often resemble scenes from an Indiana Jones movie,” said Hannes Dempewolf, a senior scientist on the project, in a statement.

In Nepal, seed collectors travelled by elephant to prevent attacks from tigers and rhinos. The expedition yielded a species of wild rice (Oryza meyeriana) that is resistant to bacterial disease and a type of sweet potato (Ipomoea cairica) that resists pests and can survive in salty soil. 

Now, the bank of seeds has sparked the development of 19 new crops and a new type of hybrid rice that farmers are testing in the Mekong delta of Vietnam. 

These wild varieties of vital crops may have once seemed useless, but by harnessing their store of genetic information scientists may have helped safeguard the world’s food security into an uncertain future.

Published on Dec 05, 2019