Extreme weather could wipe out crucial food crops. So 100 scientists spent 6 years hunting for the plants' hardier wild cousins.
- As carbon emissions rise and the planet warms, domesticated crops like rice and wheat are losing nutritional value, and climate disasters are putting harvests and farmland at risk.
- Scientists keep seeds from important crops locked in seed vaults, but most vaults lack seeds from the wild relatives of important crops.
- Those wild cousin plants may be more adaptable to changing climates and could one day be used to mitigate food insecurity around the world.
- So an international non-profit called the Crop Trust scoured 25 countries to find 371 wild relatives of plant species like potatoes, rice, and carrots.
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In case a catastrophe hits, seeds from most plant species are locked safely in vaults deep within the Earth - a kind of agricultural insurance policy.But a group of researchers is convinced this insurance doesn't quite cover all our bases.Advertisement
According to an international non-profit called the Crop Trust, many seed vaults lack seeds from the wild cousins of domesticated crops, including some species of wild rice, lentils, potatoes, and carrots.
These wild crop relatives could be crucial in the effort to make the world's food system more resilient to climate change. Already, some domesticated crops are faltering in the face of extreme temperatures and drought. Those crops' wild cousins, however, could hold the genetic key to increasing their hardiness.So for the last six years, more than 100 Crop Trust scientists have been scouring the planet for seeds.
The scientists traveled to 25 countries to find these species, according to a report the non-profit released on Tuesday.All told, the scientists collected more than 4,600 seed samples from 371 species of plants - many of which are endangered- related to 28 globally important crops. "We have made incredible progress tracking down crop wild relatives that could hold the key to food's survival," Marie Haga, the outgoing executive director of the Crop Trust, said in a press release. "But there is more to be done, and as threats to the world's biodiversity mount, this work is more urgent than ever."Advertisement
Here's what the six-year quest looked like.
Seeds vaults and seed banks around the world store back-up seeds for all major food crops.
The largest seed vault in the world, the Global Seed Vault, holds more than 983,500 seed samples.Advertisement
The idea is that in the event of a global disaster, people from anywhere in the world should be able to withdraw seeds for crops that they'd need to re-grow.
The problem is that as climate change alters precipitation patterns and increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather, it will become more challenging to grow enough food for the world's population.Advertisement
What's more, increased carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere lower the nutritional value of food staples like rice and wheat.
A recent report warned that global agricultural production will drop by one-third if farmers do not immediately start planting crops that are resilient to climate change.Advertisement
The wild relatives of staple crops are generally hardier than their domesticated counterparts.
Some wild varieties of staple crops have developed tolerance to heat and drought, and defense systems that protect them from pests and diseases.Advertisement
So Haga, Dempewolf, and more than 100 other scientists from the Crop Trust spread out across the globe in search of wild crop relatives.
They tracked down 371 wild relatives of 28 staple crops.Advertisement
They collected 4,644 seed samples.
In Nepal, seed collectors had to travel by elephant to ward off Bengal tigers and aggressive rhinos.Advertisement
The seed collectors' stories from the field often sounded like scenes from an Indiana Jones movie, Dempewolf added.
In Central America, collectors tracked down wild potatoes, beans, and rice.Advertisement
They also collected 131 samples of nine different banana species found deep in the forests of Malaysia, Nepal, and Vietnam.
The bananas we eat today are particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks.Advertisement
But some of the wild species that the scientists hoped to find are already gone.
In some Costa Rican fields, seed collectors had once found wild rice. Now those areas hold tilapia ponds or have been razed to make room for sugarcane plantations.Advertisement
But for the most part, the Crop Trust team succeeded in its quest.
The collected seed samples have been added to multiple banks around the world.Advertisement
Researchers at the University of California, Davis and other institutions are now working to cross-breed wild and domestic species.
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