"Diversity equals resilience in the biological world, which is why this project is vital to the survival of agriculture," said Paul Smith, Director of the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a key partner in the project announced today. Kew's unparalleled experience in wild plant collecting and seed biology will be brought to bear not just on a conservation problem, but on the whole issue of food security, added Smith.
According to the partners, the scale of loss in the wild is not the only urgent factor. On average, a new crop variety takes 7-10 years to breed, so it is essential for the work to begin now, before the effects of climate change begin to wreak havoc on food production. "Improving food security means helping farmers today," said Solheim, "but also taking steps to ensure they will be able to adapt to changes in the future. If we wait until the climate has changed, it will be too late. Delaying adaptation is short-sighted and the poor will pay the heaviest price."
The program will target critical traits in the wild relatives of crops that are essential, especially in the developing world, where climate change could cause production declines of between 10 and 30 percent or more. Wild relatives of crop plants tend to be much more diverse than their domesticated cousins. They grow in a wider variety of climates and conditions.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust will draw in climate change experts, biodiversity conservationists and agricultural scientists. Scientists will work with national governments and local partners on the ground, and the species to be collected all fall under the auspices of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. All materials will be collected and be publicly available under the terms of that Treaty.
Collecting is only the first step. The aim is not simply to collect and conserve, but to use and thus benefit from this diversity. However, these wild plants cannot be used straight away in a crop breeding program—as wild plants contain many characteristics that are undesirable for crops, along with the desirable ones. The 10-year scope of the project will therefore ensure that collected seed can be grown and crossed with existing breeding lines, a process known as "pre-breeding," to see if the traits of interest can then be introduced effectively into domesticated plants. Once this is done, the diversity is available to all plant breeders, everywhere.
Preservation and Progress
Samples will be conserved in a number of sites around the world, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and the genetic material and information will be shared electronically and openly. The project will also provide training to partners in the developing world in identifying and handling wild species and in plant-breeding techniques. "Variable temperatures, pests, diseases, droughts and floods are agricultural problems that have always been with us," said Fowler, "but climate change will be like putting such traditional agricultural problems on steroids." This initiative will create an unprecedented resource for developing "climate-ready" food crops.
For example, wild plants could address the issue of rice's temperature sensitivity. At a critical stage in rice flowering, a one degree Celsius change in temperature can cut yields by 10 percent. Most high-yield rice varieties flower during the heat of the day, but some wild rice relatives flower at night. "With climate change, temperatures rising by a few degrees could cut yields by 30 to 40 percent," said Fowler. "But if we could just incorporate the characteristic of night-flowering from wild rice into farmed rice, we could save millions of tons of rice, and thousands of lives. That would pay for the project many times over."
"This is a game changer," said Fowler. "This project will provide us with enormous amounts of diversity, and will provide plant breeders and farmers around the world with access to that diversity. We're going to find resistance to diseases and pests that farmers have never had before. If—and it remains an 'if'—we are to adapt agriculture to climate change, we need to stack the odds heavily in the farmers' favor. This does just that."