Saving Earth's Plant Diversity From Global Warming

ROME, Italy, May 22, 2007 (ENS) - Wild relatives of common food crops such as the potato and the peanut are at risk of extinction due to climate change, an international group of agricultural scientists warned today to mark International Biodiversity Day. Simultaneously, in England, the Millennium Seed Bank banked its billionth seed against the risks of a warming planet.

The genes of wild relatives of cultivated crops are essential to boost the ability of the crops to resist pests and tolerate drought, says the report by scientists of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.

The results of the CGIAR study were announced today in honor of International Biodiversity Day, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty

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A wild peanut variety (Photo courtesy Texas A&M)
"Our results would indicate that the survival of many species of crop wild relatives, not just wild potato and peanuts, are likely to be seriously threatened even with the most conservative estimates regarding the magnitude of climate change," said the study’s lead author, Andy Jarvis.

An agricultural geographer working at two CGIAR supported centers - the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, and Bioversity International, headquartered in Rome - Jarvis says there is "an urgent need" to collect and store the seeds of wild relatives in crop diversity collections before they disappear.

"At the moment," he said, "existing collections are conserving only a fraction of the diversity of wild species that are out there."

Extinction of crop wild relatives threatens food production because they contain genes for traits such as pest resistance and drought tolerance, which plant breeders use to improve the performance of cultivated varieties.

Growers' reliance on wild relatives to improve their cultivated cousins on the farm is expected to intensify as climate change makes it too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry for many existing crop varieties to continue producing at their current levels.

In the next 50 years, said Jarvis and his team, up to 60 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analyzed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analyzed could become extinct as the result of climate change.

Most of the wild species that remain will be confined to much smaller areas, further eroding their capacity to survive.

"The irony here is that plant breeders will be relying on wild relatives more than ever as they work to develop domesticated crops that can adapt to changing climate conditions," said Annie Lane, the coordinator of a global project on crop wild relatives led by Bioversity International, the world’s largest international research organization dedicated to the use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity.

"Yet because of climate change, we could end up losing a significant amount of these critical genetic resources at precisely the time they are most needed to maintain agricultural production," said Lane.

In England, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew marked International Biological Diversity Day by banking its billionth seed in the vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank.

The Millennium Seed Bank is housed inside the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

Banking the billionth seed, UK Minister for Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs Barry Gardiner, said, "It is an amazing statistic, and an achievement to be really proud of."

"Kew's Millennium Seed Bank must be one of the most significant conservation projects ever," said Gardiner. "It is a global insurance policy against the loss of uniquely valuable plant species through land pressures or dangerous climate change."

Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity said, "Climate change is a long-term threat to biodiversity and to human wellbeing. The Millennium Seed Bank is a long-term response to this threat."

The billionth seed is from an African bamboo, Oxytenanthera abyssinica, and was collected in Mali, West Africa by the Millennium Seed Bank partner institution in Mali, the Institut d'Economie Rurale.

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Collecting seeds of the bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica in Mali (Photo courtesy Kew)
Within Mali, and other sub-Saharan African countries, this bamboo is used for house construction, furniture, basket and wine making.

The bamboo is valuable to local people but over-harvesting has led to the species becoming endangered in Mali.

The species is a priority for conservation because its natural habitat is under increasing threat, it is a very useful plant, and it sets seed only once every seven years.

Like many bamboo species, the flowering and fruiting of Oxytenanthera abyssinica is synchronized across the region, so that all the plants flower, fruit and then die back within a single year. It last seeded in 2006.

The Millennium Seed Bank now holds several thousand seeds from this species, which will be used for conservation research both at the Millennium Seed Bank and in Mali.

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Recordbreaking giant waterlilies growing in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (Photo courtesy Kew)
Conceived after the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Millennium Seed Bank Project is based on the three central tenets of the Convention on Biological Diversity - conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits.

Today, the Millennium Seed Bank holds the largest wild seed collection in the world and works with over 100 partner organizations in 50 countries. In all cases, seed collections are kept in the country of origin, in partner seed banks, and duplicates are brought to the Millennium Seed Bank.

The partner organizations form a global network to provide effective, low-cost insurance against the loss of species in their natural environments due to threats that include the effects of climate change, the theme of this year's International Biological Diversity Day.

Current predictions estimate that many plant species may become extinct as a result of climate change. Kew's Millennium Seed Bank already contains the seeds of more than 18,000 wild plant species from 126 countries with duplicate collections in partner seed banks worldwide.

The collection includes 88 percent of the total UK plant species, including those facing the most threat from climate change.

By 2010, Kew says, 10 percent of the world's wild flowering plant species - totaling 30,000 species - will be banked, with priority given to those that are endangered, endemic, of current local use, or of potential economic value.