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Klaus Esterluß | Biodiversity & ...

Why we need the wild relatives (CWR) of our main crops

close-up at wild grass

Wild Grass, CC BY 2.0 – flickr by Stanislav Sedov

CWR is one of the abbreviations that are as unknown as they are important for the entire human race. It stands for Crop Wild Relatives and summarizes the wild, non-cultivated versions of our common food crops – wheat, sugar cane or peaches – to name just a few. Why are those wild versions important? Today’s cultivated varieties usually only produce fruit in certain environments, or under certain conditions – they would not be successful in the same way somewhere else.

However, wild crop varieties grow naturally under a much wider range of environmental conditions, and are still closely related to today’s crops. With the help of these varieties, farmers, scientists and others interested in crops are able to develop even more resistant and adaptable food sources (which is especially important in times of climate change and an explosively growing world population).

Having the examples mentioned above in mind, we find Aegilops tauschii, a relative of wheat that is resistant to the Hessian fly, a pest of cereal crops. We also see Saccharum arundinaceum, a relative of sugar cane that has the ability to survive very low temperatures. Or we see Prunus ferganensis, a wild version of peach, that is more tolerant to drought. Losing these wild varieties would mean losing the opportunity to breed resistant, stronger or more tolerant crops, if needed in the future (Source: BBC).

To raise awareness of this fact, scientists have just released the most complete database of wild crops to date. This database includes 173 crops and their 1,667 main wild relatives, along with their traits and location. The aim of this Atlas is to provide information on distribution and to collect priorities for the wild relatives of important crops. Exploring the map shows that many of the CWRs are growing in actual conflict zones in the Middle East, the cradle of all modern agriculture. And that adds a different, but not be underestimated, factor to today’s conflict situation.


September 8, 2014



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