crop wild relatives – what they are and why we need them

Nature has been doing her thing for billions of years (maybe longer, I’m not sure).  It is only since about 200,000 years ago that humans entered the picture and it is only since about 15,000 years that humans have figured out agricultural production.  It is safe to say that nature may have a few tricks up her sleeves that we Homo sapiens cannot even begin to fathom – although our incredible brains are trying.

For the first 14,850 years of the human agricultural experience, seeds were simply saved from the plants that were growing.  Some cultures chose to save the seeds from the best-looking plants and others chose to save seeds from the smallest plants, so they could eat the best-looking seeds.  The latter was not the best decision and eventually all cultures began saving the seeds from the best and strongest plants.  This helped to improve production somewhat.

Then in the 1890s, we human folk decide that it might be wise to breed two plant types together in order to get even better production.  This gave birth to modern plant breeding. Soon after, during the Green Revolution, new types of staple crops were developed that were not sensitive to the number of daylight hours, produced larger amounts of above ground biomass and saved billions of people from starvation.  It was quite an accomplishment.

However, as a result of these scientific efforts, modern crops cannot grow without inputs from humans.  They lack the necessary defenses from the many surprises that the wild world has to offer.  This brings us to Crop Wild Relatives (CWR).  These are the wild relatives of the current crops.  They contain the valuable genetic information needed to maintain genetic diversity.  Such a quality is essential as monoculture practices continue to dominate the agricultural production landscape.  CWRs also continue to evolve in adaption to natural conditions – something that domesticated crops are incapable of doing.

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The information provided by the CWRs also contribute the development of more desirable qualities in domesticated crops. Pest resistance is one of these important factors, as in the case of three peanut crops that helped in the development of a crop variety resistant to the root-knot nematode that previously cost growers an estimated $100 million annually.

Furthermore, even in their wild state, some CWRs provide valuable nutrition for humans and other animals in areas that are not suitable for cultivation. Strong examples include the use of wild cowpeas and yams in Africa to help sustain the large population, and the consumption of wild fruits, such as apples, throughout Asia.  CWRs also provide valuable fodder, fiber and medicines.



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