Common crops’ wild relatives preserved

LINDELL BEACH, B.C. — Today’s familiar crops such as wheat, oats, barley, rye, pulse crops, berries or tree fruits all originated from wild plants.

But some wild relatives are disappearing because of urban sprawl, agriculture, and pollution.

“We are seeing a widespread interest in preserving the wild relatives of commercial crops,” said Stephanie Greene, plant geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture Agriculture Research Service in Prosser, Washington state.

“About 20 percent of all plants are threatened.”

The main threats facing wild plants include intensified livestock farming, recreational activities, tourism, urban development, wild plant collection, invasive species encroachment, modification of natural systems through the construction of roads, bridges, and other access pathways and pollution.

Nigel Maxted with the school of biosciences at the University Birmingham, United Kingdom, said preserving wild crop relatives, or CWRs, is necessary to preserve the genetic material that may help develop future cultivars that can adapt to climate change.

“We don’t know exactly which ones will be of use but we clearly need to act now.”

Preserving crop wild relatives is the first in step in getting genetic material into gene banks and into the hands of breeders. This summer’s drought and its catastrophic impact on corn and other crops is an example of why wild originators of threatened plants need to be preserved.

However, many wild plants have been overlooked or are considered weeds. And then there is the philosophical issue of the need (or not) to preserve alien species.

“A species of alfalfa was introduced back at the turn of the (last) century in South Dakota and it was used in breeding,” said Greene, a member of the Crop Science Society of America.

“But it has now gotten into our national grasslands area and there has been a debate going on. How do we manage it? To them (grassland managers), it is a weed.”

Wild relatives of wheat, mustard and some beets are considered weedy, but there is debate as to whether they are weeds or resources.

Maxted agreed that crop wild relatives, even if invasive species, should be controlled but they should be preserved enough so the maximum amount of genetic diversity for each species can be made available to breeders.

To help other nations, Maxted has developed a standardized protocol for countries to use to locate and identified CWRs within their borders and launch a strategic plan of action. He has already worked with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Portugal, and Switzerland, and former students are working in China, North Africa and the U.S.

“Currently, Maxted does not have a Canadian connection as part of the conservation strategy he is overseeing but he would be interested.

“We would welcome a Canadian collaborator,” he said in an e-mail exchange.

Canada is active in preserving commercial crops and their wild relatives. The Saskatoon-based Plant Gene Resources of Canada under Agriculture Canada has extensive collections of major crops.

The gene bank contains more than 100,000 accessions (distinct samples of plants) representing close to 1,000 plant species. Given that the human population worldwide consumes only about 30 species of plants, the resources preserved in Saskatoon are extensive.

“For oats, we have nearly 28,000 accessions,” said Axel Diederichsen, research scientist and curator at Plant Gene Resources.

Diederichsen said they also have CWRs for forage crops, legumes and grasses including native prairie grasses. As well, they have wild berries, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke and a large collection of pulse crops.

In Harrow, Ont., the Canadian Clonal Genebank, also under Agriculture Canada, preserves 1,500 different strawberries and 850 different apple varieties.

At the Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, scientists conserve over 140 heirloom and contemporary Canadian bred potato varieties, while at the International Potato Centre in Peru more than 7,500 potato world varieties are preserved.

Information in Canada’s collection is shared with other gene banks.

“We have a lot of exchange of information with other countries including the USDA and the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy,” said Diederichsen.

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