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The Bambara groundnut might not have a familiar ring outside West Africa. But this protein-rich cousin of the peanut, which grows well in harsh climates and poor soils, was on the priority list of a global search for food crop seeds that could be life savers in a warming world.
Wading through wilderness and dodging conflict, floods, and poisonous snakes, over 100 scientists spent the past six years tracking down long-lost wild relatives of 28 food and forage crops that are important for world food security.
They worked across 25 countries, from the mountains of Peru to the fields of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, scouting scraggy and neglected plants strong enough to survive in the wild. Their discoveries, published this week, fill gaps in a global gene database that can be tapped to buffer global food supplies from the harsh realities of climate change’s erratic effects on the weather.
It’s an urgent mission. A food crisis is looming, says the International Panel for Climate Change, with floods and droughts linked to climate change already affecting the supply and price of food. A recent report warns that the amount of crops produced globally is set to drop by as much as 30 percent in the next 30 years. Water shortages add stress to the system, threatening supplies of wheat, maize, and rice—which are included in about half of all the calories we consume.
Those three staples were on the target list of the expedition, which also sought wild versions of crops like the Bambara groundnut, grasspea, pearl or finger millet—far from household names outside of their native regions. The rest are foods like barley, eggplant, carrot, and plantain.
Replacing what we eat now isn’t the goal, says Hannes Dempewolf, senior scientist and the head of global initiatives at the Crop Trust, the international organisation that managed the 10-year project.
“We’re all very attached to our own foods and, [because of] the cultural workings of different crops, it is difficult to completely replace something,” Dempewolf says.
The idea is to help crops become stronger and more adaptable through a breeding process that tweaks domesticated varieties with genes borrowed from those untamed cousins that survive drought, salinity, or disease.
Including so many crops in the search could also lead to a wider range of foods we can rely on in the face of catastrophic climate change. Some are important only in parts of the developing world, others worldwide.
“Quite frankly, and quite dramatically speaking, the reason that we may all be able to enjoy bread in 10-20 years, it may very well be because this project has helped secure crop wild relatives of wheat that hadn’t been conserved before,” says Dempewolf.
Topping up gene banks
Saving or manipulating seeds is nothing new. But domestication has made cultivated plants less genetically diverse over time, leaving crops we rely on more prone to disease and climate extremes. Faced with an uncertain future, and to re-inject resilience into the food system, scientists are now looking back to the genetic riches of nature.
This search-and-rescue mission is part of a wider effort. A global network of some 1,750 banks already holds a vast collection of seeds and other plant material. Most famously, the Svalbard Vault in Norway is the ultimate back-up plan for the world’s seed diversity, both domesticated and wild.