Conservationists love talking about the role we can play in food security. And with good reason – there is no more basic or universal need. Be it increased fish production in MPAs, water availability for household gardens, or grass cover during times of drought, conservation has a range of plausible ways to influence food security. But I often get the sense that when talking about food security we’re grasping a little bit, trying to fill a role for which we are not a perfect fit.
Well, there is a much overlooked role we can play, and one that conservation clearly possess the best tools and expertise to do the job: in situ conservation of crop wild relatives (CWRs).
A couple of years ago I was asked to help supervise a student who wanted to investigate how to prioritize conservation of CWRs. For those with as scant knowledge of CWRs as I had at the time, crop wild relatives are taxa that are closely related to domestic agricultural crops.
Typically CWRs are varieties of the same species as the domestic crop but they may also include subspecies or even sometimes congeneric species. Although modern GM technology means that many species are potential gene donors for crop improvement, CWRs remain the taxa with the greatest potential to contribute beneficial traits to their related crops, such as resistance to disease or tolerance to abiotic stresses such as temperature or salinity.
To give a sense of just how important the genetic material from CWRs is, over the past 30 years, at least 60 CWRs have contributed more than 100 beneficial traits to 13 major crops such as wheat, rice, tomato, and potato (Hajjar and Hodgkin 2007) and even 15 years ago it was estimated that the global increase in crop yield as a results of crossing with CWRs represents a value of $115 billion per year (Pimentel et al. 1997).
Many experts also see CWRs as one of the most promising avenues to address the challenges that climate change poses to global food security (Feuillet et al. 2008; Nevo and Chen 2010).Tweet this quote
Just like many species that are the focus of conservation effort, there is anthropogenic pressure on CWRs in their native habitats (land conversion, degradation, overgrazing, competition from exotic species, etc.), threatening this global source of genetic diversity. Although plant resources can be safely conserved ex situ in seed banks, such as the one under the ice of Svalbard, Norway, in situ conservation is a critical compliment for at least two reasons.
First, the genetic diversity across a species wild range can never hope to be captured entirely in ex situ collections and the traits that are most beneficial for future crop improvement are often adaptations to particular local environmental conditions (e.g., drought tolerance or salt tolerance). Second, in situ conservation allows populations to continue natural adaptation to changing conditions. Conserving CWRs in situ will ensure that their future value for crop improvement is maximized.
Sustaining important species and their diversity in situ is what conservation does. It’s been our core business. It is perhaps a little surprising then that there has been such scant attention paid by conservation organizations to conserving CWRs, and that the subject is gravely under-represented in the main conservation literature. It is not as if it’s contested space – agricultural agencies generally have limited responsibility for wild species conservation.
It would, however, be grossly unfair to suggest that there is no awareness of this potential nexus between food security and classic conservation; reference to CWRs appears in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya text, there is a CWR Specialist Group within the IUCN, and the FAO has a global initiative on CWR conservation.
Like most taxa, developing countries contain the lion’s share of CWR diversity (which has disproportionately benefited developed nations so far), but are also where the pressures on remaining habitat are greatest and the resources for conservation most inadequate. One could easily make the case that developed nations have both a strong interest and responsibility to help poorer nations conserve CWRs.
Yes, a weedy-looking wild cowpea vine will struggle to compete with a black rhino on charisma, but have we asked the tens of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on cowpea, which they value the conservation of more? The key, however, is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Existing protected areas and conservation projects are likely to contain a great many CWR resources and present an efficient option for the conservation. In the study I was involved in, we identified 182 existing protected areas across Africa likely to contain at least one important cowpea CWR (Moray et al. 2014).
I was recently with some donors in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, and while I talked at length about the benefits of our work there for threatened and fauna and habitats, perhaps I should have made more of the fact that it’s also a hotspot of diversity for wild soy bean relatives (González-Orozco et al. 2012).
In many cases, I suspect it would not take much effort to incorporate CWRs into the management plans for existing conservation areas.
At the level of a single conservation area, conserving CWRs is neither a guaranteed nor rapid pathway to food security for local communities. However, the challenges of feeding an increasing global population in a changing climate mean that if we’re playing the long game, the potential impact of even a single CWR is staggering.
If we are serious about conservation helping people, CWRs present a role for us in food security that is more important and better aligned than most of us realize.