Future food security will depend on wild plants that are related to our main agricultural crops. A new study has found that more than half of these plants are now endangered.
For 10,000 years we’ve relied on domesticated plants for our staple foods. But it’s the wild relatives of those crops that are becoming increasingly important to our future food supply.
These wild foods have survived hundreds of thousands of years and have adapted to extreme climates, pests, diseases, and other inhospitable conditions. That makes their genes particularly important for plant breeding, especially when we’re looking for foods that can withstand a changing climate. Some varieties are still important food and cultural resources.
In a new studyPublished in Proceedings of National Academy of SciencesResearchers have taken inventory of wild foods and their conservation threats. They modeled the distribution of 600 wild taxa in the United States including their relatives, such as barley, beans and grapes, hops and hops, and potatoes.
Their findings were alarming: More than half the wild relatives are threatened in their native habitats. That is a threat for our future.
“The contributions of crop wild relatives to food security depend on their conservation and accessibility for use,” the researchers wrote. With mounting extinction threats, the researchers recommended that three quarters of the taxa be deemed an “urgent priority” for collection to boost conservation.
This requires a multipronged approach.
“Given the diversity of U.S. native crop wild relatives prioritized for action, ambitious collaborative conservation efforts are needed among gene banks, botanical gardens, community conservation initiatives, and organizations focused on habitat conservation,” they wrote.
So far Ex situ conservation — in gene banks and botanical gardens — is insufficient. The study found that 14% of the plants had been completely removed from these repositories. Another 33% were found in fewer then 10 locations. That leaves us with “relatively limited genetic variation for research and education,” the researchers concluded.
They recommend that citizen conservationists, hobbyist gardeners, and botanical gardens collaborate more effectively to close the gap.
It is important to protect the natural habitats where these species can grow, in addition to seed banks and gardens.
Based on the researchers’ mapping of the potential distribution of the plants, some are likely to be found in areas that are already protected — such as the Patuxent Research Refuge, the Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park, the Indiana Dunes, Gulf Islands, Yellowstone and other areas.
They state that habitat conservation efforts must be intensified, which could include the expansion of existing protected areas and the creation of new protected areas.
This can be difficult to do when there are competing land demands, but it will provide additional benefits.
Conserving these natural habitats, the study finds, will help safeguard ecosystems and other species, providing both “known as well as currently unrecognized benefits to society.”
Better public awareness may be the key to the fate of wild foods. This is beyond the work of scientists, land managers, and land managers. The best champions for wild foods could be botanical gardens.
“While all involved organizations will need to enhance their public outreach around native crop wild relatives,” the researchers conclude, “botanical gardens, which receive more than 120 million visitors a year in the United States, could play a particularly pivotal role in introducing these species to people, communicating their value and plight, and better connecting the concepts of food security, agricultural livelihoods, and services provided by nature for the public.”
The deputy editor of The RevelatorShe has been a digital editor and an environmental journalist for over ten years. Her focus is on the intersections between energy, water, and climate. Her work was published by The Nation. American Prospect. High Country News. Grist. Pacific StandardOthers. She is also the editor of two books about the global water crisis.