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Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change

Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. To meet this challenge we are turning to the wild cousins of the crops we eat for their useful traits which have the power to safeguard our future food security.

Wild carrot growing in Youghal, Ireland.

Rising temperatures, changes in rainfall, erratic weather patterns and the prevalence of pests and diseases resulting from climate change threaten agricultural productivity and therefore undermine global food security. This, coupled with the pressures of human population increase, will mean that the demand for food will be greater than ever.

Since the dawn of agriculture, over 10,000 years ago, humans have been selectively breeding plants based on characteristics such as taste, high yield, resistance to disease, growing conditions and easy harvesting. Even though there are around 7,000 species of  food crops globally, only 12 of these account for approximately 80% of global consumption. While the domestication of plants has allowed human population growth and the development of society, the subsequent loss of genetic diversity has left the crops vulnerable to pests, diseases and changing environmental conditions. Genetic diversity is the key to resilience against such threats and the best source of genetic variation can be found in the wild relatives of crop species.

Crops for our future

Crop wild relatives can be defined as wild plant species which are genetically related to the crop but, unlike the crop, they have not been domesticated. This definition also includes ancestors of the crop. Crop wild relatives serve as a genetic back-up. They have a much broader genetic base than crop species because they have not been subjected to the genetic bottleneck that comes with domestication, and therefore they are more likely to survive the challenges that come with climate change. Advanced screening techniques allow breeders to identify which plants have desirable traits, so that these plants can then be used in breeding programs and their useful characteristics can be passed onto the crop.

Protecting and using crop wild relatives

Many crop wild relatives are in danger of extinction from habitat degradation, soil erosion and changes in environmental conditions. Furthermore, these wild cousins of our crops remain largely uncollected and therefore they are largely unevaluated and unavailable for plant breeders and farmers. It is vitally important, and in the interests of humanity, that we harness the genetic potential found in crop wild relatives, for the improvement of our crops.

The Millennium Seed Bank in collaboration with the Global Crop Diversity Trust is engaged in a project called ‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’. The main objective of this project is to collect, protect and prepare the wild relatives of the world’s most important food crops, in a form that plant breeders can readily use to produce varieties adapted to future climatic conditions that farmers in the developing world will soon be encountering.

The project focuses on the wild relatives of 29 crops which are of major importance to food security, covered by Annex 1 of the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The crops are African rice, alfalfa, apple, aubergine, bambara groundnut, banana, barley, bread wheat, butter bean, carrot, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, faba bean, finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, plantain, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato and vetch.

The project aims to:

  • identify those crop wild relatives that are missing from existing collections, are most likely to contain diversity of value to adapting agriculture to climate change, and are most endangered
  • collect them from the wild
  • provide them to genebanks for conservation
  • prepare these and others already in collections (‘pre-breeding’) for use in breeding crops for new climates
  • evaluate them for useful traits, and
  • make the resulting information widely available

There is, quite simply, no more important step we can take to prepare for climate change than to ensure that the crops that feed humanity are adapted to deal with the current and future challenges of climate change.

Crop wild relatives can be defined as wild plant species which are genetically related to the crop but, unlike the crop, have not been domesticated.

Find out more about crop wild relatives in these films:

Project partners and collaborators

International

Global Crop Diversity Trust
International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

UK

University of Birmingham

Project funders


Norway

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs