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Climate Change Threatening to Wipe Out Wild Relatives of Key Crops

Climate change is threatening to completely wipe out wild relatives of plants such as potato and peanut, according to a new study released by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

According to the study, in the next 50 years as many as 61 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analyzed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analyzed could become extinct as the result of climate change.

Most of those that remained would be confined to much smaller areas, further eroding their capacity to survive, researchers said.

"Our results would indicate that the survival of many species of crop wild relatives, not just wild potato, peanuts and cowpea, are likely to be seriously threatened even with the most conservative estimates regarding the magnitude of climate change," said Andy Jarvis, lead author of the study.

As such, "there is an urgent need to collect and store the seeds of wild relatives in crop diversity collections before they disappear. At the moment, existing collections are conserving only a fraction of the diversity of wild species that are out there, he said.

As part of their study, Jarvis and his colleagues looked specifically at the effects of climate change on the three crops in Africa and South America.

They focussed on the two continents as this allowed them to consider how known populations of wild plants would fare in a wide variety of growing conditions.

Findings revealed that the impact of climate change was likely to be more pronounced in some species than in others but that, in general, all three groups of species would suffer.

Jarvis further said the extinction of crop wild relatives threatened food production as they contained genes for traits such as pest resistance and drought tolerance, which plant breeders use to improve the performance of cultivated varieties.

Wild crops are a valuable source of genes that are necessary to boost the ability of cultivated crops to resist pests and tolerate drought, he said.

The reliance on wild relatives to improve their cultivated cousins on the farm is expected to intensify as climate change makes it too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry for many existing crop varieties to continue producing at their current levels, said Jarvis, an agricultural geographer working at two CGIAR-supported centres the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Bioversity International, with headquarters in Rome.

"The irony here is that plant breeders will be relying on wild relatives more than ever as they work to develop domesticated crops that can adapt to changing climate conditions. Yet because of climate change, we could end up losing a significant amount of these critical genetic resources at precisely the time they are most needed to maintain agricultural production, added Annie Lane, the coordinator of a global project on crop wild relatives led by Bioversity International.

The results of the study were announced on International Biodiversity Day, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).


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