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CROP WILD RELATIVES –A wild solution to future food problems?

Discarding an asset worth perhaps $120 billion would be seen by most as an act of madness. But this may be the outcome unless we start saving valuable genetic resources of crop wild relatives.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew's Millennium Seed Bank commissioned Price Waterhouse Coopers recently to look at the value of known crop wild relatives among a short list of the main species we use for food. The results of a conservative analysis of lost economic potential are very worrying especially if you look at them through the lenses of climate change and human population growth (see:

Crop wild relatives are defined as wild plant species that are genetically related to the crop but, unlike the crop, they have not been domesticated. While humans have domesticated some 7 000 species of plants over the last 10 000 years only twelve of these account for 80% of the foods consumed. Now much genetic diversity has been ‘stored’ in those species themselves.  The recent commencement of the Australian Grains Genebank at Horsham is a great national leap forward, adding support to the work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, to which Australia is a major contributor.

According to the Bureau of Rural Sciences in 2010:”Australian seed banks hold significant collections that are not held elsewhere. For example, Australian seed banks have conserved early wheat and barley collections and unique land races or older cultivars that are now proving invaluable in modern breeding. These seed banks house the world’s largest temperate legume collection with 40 000 unique genetic lines. Australia also has native relatives of important crop plants, with unique genes adapting them to Australia’s challenging environment.

Sorghum timorense (Photo: Murray Fagg, ANBG)

Australia’s major plant genetic resource collections together comprise 184 000 ‘accessions’ (documented samples). These collections are not only critical for Australian agriculture, but also significant in a global context. Researchers and breeders constantly use the germplasm from domestically held seed banks, with over 14 000 accessions distributed annually to Australian users. Overseas users request approximately 3000 accessions annually.”

Australia is the home of a number of endemic species related to the global crop resources. Some 20 species of the families Poaceae (grasses), Leguminosae (legumes), Musaceae (banana) and Convolvulaceae (sweet potato) are considered important. While they are collected in herbaria, there needs to be broad based seed collecting and storage of these species to achieve good sampling of their potential genetic diversity.