News Release

Major global analysis offers hope for saving the wild side of staple food crops

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Global efforts to adapt staple foods like rice, wheat and potato to climate change have been given a major boost today as new research shows the whereabouts of their wild cousins –which could hold beneficial qualities to help improve crops and make them more productive and resilient.

The analysis assesses 29* of the world's most important food crops and reveals severe threats to just over half of their wild relatives as they are not adequately saved in genebanks and not available to researchers and plant breeders for crop improvement. Climate change is predicted to cause the substantial decline of agricultural production in the coming decades, and together with rising food prices, this will hit the poorest first and hardest. This global analysis forms part of a larger partnership to collect and conserve the wild relatives of the world's major food crops. The initiative, led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) in partnership with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank and in collaboration with national and international agricultural research institutes, is the largest ever global effort to conserve crop wild relatives. These wild plants contain essential traits that could be bred into crops to make them more hardy and versatile in the face of dramatically different climates expected in the coming years. The Norwegian government is providing funding for this ten-year initiative.

The three-year study, carried out by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and managed by the Crop Trust in partnership with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, is the first of its kind to assess, on a global scale, the conservation gaps for crop wild relatives across the most significant crop gene pools. The University of Birmingham researched and developed a comprehensive inventory of these wild crop cousins, providing a foundation for the gap analysis.

"This is a major step forward in the global effort to make our food crops more resilient to the effects of climate change," says Andy Jarvis, leader of CIAT's Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area, which conducted the research. "Crop wild relatives are a potential treasure trove of useful characteristics that scientists can put to good use for making agriculture more resilient and improving the livelihoods of millions of people."

Jane Toll, Project Manager at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, adds, "This study has thrown up some surprises. Crop wild relatives in some areas in Australia, Europe and the USA need to be collected just as much as those in regions of Africa, Asia and South America. We want to ensure access to the wild genes that could boost the crops relied on by some of the world's poorest people. These wild genes have the potential to increase yields, pest resistance and tolerance to extreme temperatures."

Dr Ruth Eastwood, Crop Wild Relative Project Coordinator from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, says, "Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. Crop wild relatives are already being used to make improvements to our food crops right now and are extremely valuable economically as well, but they are underutilised. In a separate study by PwC, commissioned by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, it is estimated that the monetary value to agriculture of improved productivity or stress resistance traits that crop wild relatives offer is currently $42bn with the potential to be $120bn in the future."

  • Of the 29 priority crop gene pools targeted, the project focused on a set of 450 crop wild relatives

  • Gap analysis results show that 54% of the crop wild relatives on the target list are high priority for collection as they have not been collected before or existing collections do not adequately represent their full geographic distribution

  • The top five crops most at risk are eggplant (aubergine), potato, apple, sunflower and carrot, as a large number of their crop wild relatives are high priority species for collection

  • Important cereal crops in much of Africa, including sorghum and finger millet, are also at high risk and the collection of their wild relatives is being prioritised

  • Countries with the richest number of priority crop wild relatives include: Australia, Bolivia, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey and USA. Although these countries are mostly located in the traditionally recognised centres of high wild crop diversity, notable exceptions are USA, Australia and the European countries. For example, northern Australia has been identified as rich in the wild relatives of African staple sorghum

  • This highlights the important role that the wild plant resources in industrialised countries have to contribute to food security in developing nations. It is expected that there will be collecting in Italy and Portugal this summer, carried out by scientists from Kew's Millennium Seed Bank and local partners

  • Adding urgency to the need for field collections, some of the crop wild relatives on the priority list are believed to be threatened by factors such as habitat loss. For example, the wild cousin, Phaseolus persistentus, of the common bean from Central America

  • One is thought to be extinct in the wild, Solanum ruvu, a wild relative of eggplant (aubergine), which comes from Tanzania


Media enquiries/ interviews: Please contact the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press office on or + 44 (0)20 8332 5607

A summary of the CIAT gap analysis is available here

Images are available to download from or

A video about crop wild relatives produced by Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is available here


Global Crop Diversity Trust: Hannes Dempewolf, Scientist; Jane Toll, Project Manager and Marie Haga Executive Director

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank: Dr Ruth Eastwood, Project Coordinator; Dr Jonas Mueller, International Coordinator; and Dr Paul Smith, Head of the Millennium Seed Bank

CIAT: Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda (research scientists); and Dr Andy Jarvis, leader, Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area

Additional Quotes

Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

"Agriculture is facing its most profound challenge to date: the climate is changing rapidly, the earth's population is growing, and we know that the use of crop diversity is a key solution. The use of crop wild relatives is an essential strategy to help adapt agriculture to a changing climate and feed 1 billion more people in the next ten years. This gap analysis shows us where these wild relatives are located and remain to be collected, which is a critical step towards adapting today's agriculture to the challenges we face."

Dr Paul Smith, Head of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank

"Thanks to the gap analysis we know exactly where to target our efforts around the globe. Some of the species that we collect will be immediately useful, while we may only tap into others in the future. Although we know the effects of climate change could be far reaching, it is difficult to know the specific challenges and threats our crops could face in the future. Therefore to keep our options open it is vital that we keep the seeds of these important plants in secure storage, both in the Millennium Seed Bank and their countries of origin, for decades and even hundreds of years. These crop wild relatives are an important resource that might otherwise have been lost without this project."

Notes to Editors

Examples where wild relatives have already been used to enhance crops:

  • Wild broccoli species have been used to produce a nutritionally enhanced variety of broccoli which contains higher levels of anti-cancer agent glucoraphanin Sulforaphane, which is derived from glucoraphanin on ingestion, leads to lower levels of heart disease and acts against some forms of cancer

  • Wild relatives of pearl millet have successfully been used in breeding programs to transfer traits such as drought and disease resistance to the main crop

  • Resistance to grassy stunt virus has been transferred from Indian wild relative, Oryza nivara, into cultivated varieties of rice

Crop wild relatives are wild plant species that are genetically related to crops, but which have not been domesticated. They could be the ancestors of a domesticated crop plant, or an otherwise closely related species

Releasing a new crop variety to farmers can take 15 to 20 years. Crop wild relatives need to be collected, protected and prepared for use in plant breeding programmes as a matter of urgency if we are going to be ready in time for the effects of climate change, which are already affecting agriculture in many parts of the world

* The 29 crops and their wild relatives targeted by the project, are covered by Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) They are: African rice, alfalfa, apple, eggplant (aubergine), bambara groundnut, banana, barley, wheat, lima bean (butter bean), carrot, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, faba bean (broad bean), finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, plantain, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato and vetch

For further information about the methodology developed by CIAT to identify collecting priorities for crop wild relatives, see link to the paper below, which used the common bean as a model

Collecting priorities have not only been set on the basis of the gap analysis results, but also according to a number of additional criteria in order to maximise the impact of the project. These include: the crop's relevance to developing countries and current breeding demands, the level of endemism of species and the threats they face in nature, the number of target species in each country and a country's adherence to the ITPGRFA. Work is underway to develop collecting programmes with key national partners around the world

Additional useful facts

80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 plant species. (Source: Grivetti, L.E. & Ogle, B.M. (2000), Value of traditional foods in meeting macro- and micronutrient needs: the wild plant connection. Nutrition Research Reviews 13, 31-46)

50% of our calories come from just the three big grasses; wheat, maize and rice. (Source:

One fifth of the world's plant species are under threat of extinction. (Source: Sampled Red List Index for Plants, RBG Kew, 2010) Plant species under threat include wild relatives of cultivated crops that could be key to securing food sources in the future

About the Global Crop Diversity Trust:

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organization with a vision to secure forever the basis of a diverse and sustainable agriculture to support food security and alleviate poverty. The Crop Trust works to ensure the conservation and availability of plant diversity essential for food and agriculture by providing sustainable funding to key international collections of plant genetic resources, promoting the availability of collections and information sharing, and by funding technical assistance and capacity building. The Crop Trust is building an endowment to provide long-term stable funding to the globally important collections of crop diversity. The Crop Trust also supports the ongoing operations of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew's country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract over 1.5 million visits every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. Kew receives approximately half its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Further funding needed to support Kew's vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales. This year Kew Gardens is celebrating the amazing bounty of the plant world with the IncrEdibles festival (running until 3 November 2013)

About CIAT

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)-a member of the CGIAR Consortium-develops technologies, tools, and new knowledge that better enable farmers, especially smallholders, to make agriculture eco-efficient-that is, competitive and profitable as well as sustainable and resilient. Eco-efficient agriculture reduces hunger and poverty, improves human nutrition, and offers solutions to environmental degradation and climate change in the tropics. With headquarters near Cali, Colombia, CIAT conducts research for development in tropical regions of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

About the University of Birmingham

The School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham has a recognized leading international role in PGR conservation research, technology transfer and education. The plant genetic resources research group have led and been partner in numerous CWR/landrace projects and are currently coordinating the EC FP7 "Novel characterization of crop wild relative and landrace resources as a basis for improved crop breeding (PGR Secure)" project, which is focused on developing CWR and landrace in situ and ex situ conservation and use methodologies. In addition, the group has extensive experience in offering training for conservationists and consultancy services at global, regional and UK levels

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.