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Adapting agriculture to climate change

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Collecting Wild Rice with our Costa Rican partners

Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. For thousands of years humans have selectively bred plants based on characteristics such as taste, high yield, resistance to disease, growing conditions and ease of harvesting. While the domestication of plants has allowed human population growth the subsequent loss of genetic diversity has left crops vulnerable to pests, diseases and changing environmental conditions, particularly climate change. Today 50% of our calories come from just the three crops: wheat, maize and rice. What would happen if a disaster struck one of these crops? The emergence of a new disease or slight change in growing conditions could jeopardise the food supply of tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people.

The wild relatives of today's food crops contain an incredible amount of genetic diversity, which holds the potential to help crops become more resilient to threats. But these crop wild relatives (CWR) remain largely unevaluated and are threatened by land use changes, conflict and changes in environmental conditions. Collecting the valuable genetic diversity, within these wild relatives, is vital to ensure our future food security.

Aims and Objectives

This work is supported by the government of Norway and managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and implemented in partnership with national and international gene banks and plant breeding institutes around the world.

Aim- To prioritise and collect CWR, ensure their long-term conservation, and facilitate their use in breeding new, improved crops.

The project objectives can be broken down by the four project phases:

Prioritisation

  • Objective: Develop a global CWR inventory, an occurrence dataset, and gap analyses detailing where CWR species have not been collected before. Identify and prioritise CWR taxa, and locations, for collection.
  • Progress: The Project team identified and prioritised the closest crop wild relative taxa (over 350 species in total) of 29 focal crops for collection, and the distribution of these taxa was used to identify key countries for collecting.

Collecting

  • Objective: Organize the collecting of more than 350 priority CWR species.
  • Progress: We are working with partners in 24 countries. For each partner we have produced a collecting guide (video) providing collecting details on each species. Cyprus, Italy, Georgia and Vietnam have finished their collecting.

Conserving

  • Objective: Conserve 1/3 of each CWR collection within the country of origin and 2/3 in the Millennium Seed Bank's long-term -20° C store.
  • Progress: As of December 2016, 1,512 CWR collections have been safeguarded in the MSB, 33% of the target number of collections.

Pre-breeding

  • Objective: Make available and send conserved collections to pre-breeders.
  • Progress: All CWR collections at the MSB are now available to pre-breeders and can be requested via GENESYS. We have sent Medicago to Australia- and are now looking to send seeds to over 45 pre-breeding organisations around the world.

All collections made under this project will be entered into the multilateral system of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and exchanged using standard material transfer agreement of the Treaty.

Achievements

  • Over 2000 collections of CWRs have been conserved at the MSB so far, representing more than 200 taxa, amounting to over 6 million seeds.
  • Nearly 1,000 germination tests have revealed that the quality of seed collections is high.
  • Collecting guides have been completed for 24 countries.
  • To date 12 partners have completed their collecting (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Ghana, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Portugal, Sudan, Uganda and Vietnam) and the rest will finish in 2018.
  • The project has provided 73 people from 19 partner institutions with training, both in country and at the MSB to ensure all partners have the knowledge, support and capacity to meet the project's objectives.
  • The project's 'Blue Drum Kits' provide low-tech drying equipment for seed collection, processing and storage. We have shipped them to partners in 19 different countries.

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