80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 dominant crops and 50% of our calories come from just the three big grasses: wheat, maize and rice. What would happen if we were to lose one of these crops?
Detail of Solanum ruvu specimen collected by B. Mhoro and the Frontier-Tanzania Programme in the Ruvu Forest Reserve. This is the only collection known of this species, and one of the only two herbarium specimens known.
Food security - a global issue
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food security exists when 'all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life'.
This video discusses why wild crop relatives are so important for our future food security, and how Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank are helping to safeguard them
The scale of food security ranges from complete food security, through various stages of hunger, malnutrition and famine. The achievement of global food security depends on the production of enough food for all, alongside the adequate distribution of food around the world. Food security is a pressing issue in developing nations, but with a global population of over seven billion, it is an issue that affects us all.
All our crops were originally developed from wild plant species - that’s how farming began. But they were adapted from the plants best suited to the climates of the past. We now 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.
Threats to food security
The major threats to global food security include a rapidly increasing global population, climate change and the consequent reduction of land suitable for agriculture, rising numbers of pests and diseases, and increasing resistance to pesticides.
Many threats interact with one another. For example, as the effect of climate change reduces the land available for food crop production, pests and diseases are spreading to new regions of the world as temperatures change. The consequence is reduced crop yields, in some instances to a severe level. An extreme example was the complete decimation of the Gros Michel banana in the 1950s from Panama disease, caused by the global spread of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum. The impact on the banana industry was unprecedented as the Gros Michel banana was the only species of banana eaten in the United States at the time, and had been since the late 19th century.
Protecting the world's food supply at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is involved in the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change Project which aims to gather, save and use the wild plant relatives of essential food crops, such as wheat, rice, maize, beans, potato, barley, chickpeas and lentils.
The wild relatives of popular crops are valuable because they contain many useful traits that can be bred into the crops we grow for food, making them more hardy and versatile in the face of new threats.
For example, sea barley (Hordeum marinum) is a salt-tolerant wild relative of cereal barley (H. vulgare), which is used widely in breakfast cereals. Salt tolerance is a useful trait for commercial crops that need to adapt to future climates because as regions get hotter, groundwater salt levels can also increase. This highlights the need for our crops to be able to grow and thrive in new and very different conditions.
Kew's work offers a concrete step towards strengthening global food security for our future. Support Kew's work today and help us reduce the threats facing the world's food supply.