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Every crop needs its wild relatives

A Joint Press Release by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme

28 June 2004, Colombo/Nairobi/Rome - A project aimed at boosting the conservation and use of the wild relatives of some of the world’s key crops is being launched today.

The project, bringing together the biologically rich countries of Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan, aims to improve key features of traditional crops ranging from their economic and nutritional value to their ability to naturally fight disease.

The importance of conserving wild crop relatives as future sources of novel traits is highlighted by recent developments with the tomato. An increase of 0.1 per cent in the solid content of this fruit is worth around US$ 10 million a year to processors in California.

One wild living tomato has allowed plant breeders to boost, by 2.4 per cent or $250 million annually, the level of solids in commercial varieties.

Meanwhile, three different wild peanuts have been used to breed commercial varieties resistant to root knot nematodes. It is helping to save peanut growers around the world an estimated $100 million a year.

Researchers believe the new project, which is co-funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), will play its part in fighting hunger and improving the livelihoods of farmers across the globe.

The project, called In Situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives Through Enhanced Management and Field Application, is being launched today in Colombo, Sir Lanka, by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and national and international partners. (see notes to editors)

It comes at a time of increasing concern over the loss of these precious genetic resources. For example more than one in 20 of the species of Poaceae , the botanical family that includes cereal crops such as wheat, maize, barley and millet, are threatened with extinction from deforestation, habitat loss and intensive agriculture.

Forests are rich in wild plants that may be new sources of novel genetic traits for improved crops including coffee, mango and rubber. During the 1990s, 94 million hectares or 2.4 per cent of total forest cover, was lost.

The new scheme will pool existing information from a wide variety of sources on crop wild relatives in each of the five countries. An information exchange network will be set up allowing scientists and breeders to pinpoint promising traits for improving crop production.

The project will pin point ways on how to best conserve the rich genetic resources of the countries concerned.

The project will enhance conservation measures already undertaken and make available resources in order to build upon these. For example, Sri Lanka has carried out several actions to conserve crop wild relatives and raise awareness of their importance, but has no national strategy.

Armenia and Uzbekistan have surveyed their crop wild relatives and created limited protected areas at least partly to conserve these plants. For example Armenia’s Erebuni Reserve is one of the few in the world deliberately established to conserve the wild living relatives of a key crop, in this case wild wheats.

Bolivia and Madagascar need to extend surveys of where wild living crop relatives may be found and establish areas to protect them.

Notes to Editors

Some examples of the value of crop wild relatives

Crop wild relatives make a huge contribution to plant breeding. It is estimated that between 1976 and 1980, wild relatives contributed approximately US$340 million per year in yield and disease resistance to the farm economy of the United States alone.

In addition, improvements in molecular technology have made it easier and quicker to identify useful traits in wild relatives and to develop new and improved varieties.

Wild relatives have increased the productivity of globally important crops such as barley, maize, oats, potatoes, rice and wheat.

Breeders have also used them to boost the nutritional value of foods. For example, the high anti-cancer properties found in some varieties of broccoli originated in a Sicilian wild relative.

Wild relatives have provided traits such as disease resistance, tolerance to extreme temperatures, tolerance to salinity (from a wild relative growing in the Galapagos Islands) and resistance to drought. They have also helped increase the nutritional value of the cultivated tomato by providing more Vitamin C and beta-carotene. One wild relative has made it possible to increase the solids content of the tomato by 2.4% worth US$ 250 million a year in the state of California alone.

Nutritional value

By crossing cultivated broccoli with a wild Sicilian relative, scientists are breeding a variety that contain higher levels of the cancer fighting chemical, sulforaphane, an anti-oxidant that destroys compounds that can damage DNA. The new variety of broccoli contains 100 times more sulforaphane.

Wheat is the staple food for approximately one in three of the world’s population. But diets based solely on cereals lack important nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A.

A wild relative of wheat, Triticum turgidum var dicoccoides, from the Eastern Mediterranean was used to increase the protein content of bread and durum wheat. The International Center for the Improvement of Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT) has shown that other wild relatives of wheat have up to 1.8 times more zinc and 1.5 times more iron in their grains than ordinary wheat and could be used to improve levels of these minerals in wheat varieties.

Disease resistance

In the 1970s an outbreak of grassy stunt virus devastated the rice fields of millions of farmers in South and Southeast Asia. The virus, transmitted by the brown plant hopper, prevents the rice plant from producing flowers and grain.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) screened more than 17,000 cultivated and wild rice samples for resistance to the disease.

A wild relative of rice, Oryza nivara, growing in the wild in Uttar Pradesh was found to have one single gene for resistance to the grassy stunt virus. This gene is now routinely incorporated in all new varieties of rice grown across more than 100 000 km2 of Asian rice fields.

Apart from UNEP, GEF and the IPGRI, the other agencies involved are the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, IUCN-the World Conservation Union, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and ZADI, the German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture.

For More Information Please Contact Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP’s Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 20 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail: eric.falt@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org


Jeremy Cherfas, Public Awareness Officer, IPGRI on Tel: 39 066118 234, E-mail: j.cherfas@cgiar.org

UNEP News Release




Further Resources

International Plant Genetic Resources Institute

Global Environment Facility

Food and Agriculture Organizations of United Nations

Botanical Gardens Conservation International

Food and Agriculture Organizations of United Nations

IUCN-the World Conservation Union

The UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center

German Centre for Documentation and Information in Agriculture


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