Wild Variants of Popular Crops Under Threat of Extinction

Image: Alejandro Barrón/Pexels

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

While humans have been domesticating crops for the past 10,000 years, we also need wild variants of the crops we cultivate as they have traits that make them more resistant to disease and resilient to environmental changes. We can breed these traits into our domesticated crops.

But a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that these wild variants may be under threat. These researchers have found that over half of the 600 wild taxa in the United States are endangered in their natural habitats.

Why This Matters: As global temperatures rise, plant breeders need to find and develop plant varieties that are more tolerant to heat. Without wild relatives of the plants we consume, this may be impossible. We already see evidence that this is happening — in Israel, wild wheat and barley populations have already been affected by increasingly hot and dry weather.

A worst-case scenario could be something like the grape crisis of the 1800s — when a soil-burrowing pest called phylloxera arrived in Europe from North America; it decimated vineyards across the continent. But North American native grapes were resistant to the pest, so European farmers could graft them to European grape plants to save their crops. Without these wild crops, we may not save domestic species from destruction should another crisis like this happen again.

The species under threat include relatives of barley, beans, grapes, hops, plums, potatoes, and more. As the extinction threats rise, the researchers recommended that three-quarters of the taxa be labeled an “urgent priority” to increase awareness and spur conservation.

Solving the Crisis: Right now, plant conservation in gene banks and botanical gardens hasn’t been enough to prevent extinction. The researchers found that 14% of these wild relatives of domesticated crops were absent from these archives, while 33% were found in fewer than ten locations.

But luckily, many strategies can help save the United States’ native crops, which involve help from conservationists and hobby gardeners alike. 

Part of this effort should come from the federal government to ensure that wild crops can survive in their natural habitat. Many of these plants are found in areas that are already protected, like the Patuxent Research Refuge, the Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park, the Indiana Dunes, Gulf Islands, Yellowstone, and other areas. But the researchers emphasize that we need to establish more protected areas and expand these protected spaces.

Citizen conservationists and hobby gardeners also have a part to play in saving our wild foods. Hobby gardeners can grow native foods in their gardens to start reintroducing them into our diets, while citizen conservationists can also track wild crop prevalence in their areas.

Botanical gardens are also crucial in spreading awareness about the issue. “Botanical gardens,” the researchers wrote, “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.”

As Colin K. Khoury, the study’s lead author put it in an interview with Civil Eats: “Everyone can play a role in the diversification of the food system.”

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