Basic food crops dangerously vulnerable
In the case of wheat, for instance, as a deadly new strain of Black Stem Rust devastates harvests across Africa and Arabia, and threatens the staple food supply of a billion people from Egypt to Pakistan, the areas where potentially crop and life-saving remnant wild wheat relatives grow are only minimally protected.
“Our basic food plants have always been vulnerable to attack from new strains of disease or pests and the result is often mass hunger and starvation, as anyone who remembers their school history of the Irish Potato Famine will know,” said Liza Higgins-Zogib, Manager of People and Conservation at WWF International.
“In more recent times we have avoided similar collapses in the production when disease strikes essential foodstuffs like wheat by developing new commercial varieties from naturally resistant wild relatives.”
“Unfortunately the natural habitat of most of the wild or traditional descendents of our modern food plants is without legal and physical protection, leaving them at risk.”
Also at risk are the indigenous and traditional peoples who are critical parts of the landscapes associated with crop wild relatives, who are losing their lands and cultural practices — which puts humanity's food at even further risk.
Wheat and barley originated in an arc mainly to the north of the Fertile Crescent (modern day Iraq) where their domestication was linked with the development by early Mesopotamian civilizations of cities, irrigation and laws. Ecoregions such as the Eastern Anatolian montane steppe, where wheat's wild relatives remain, now combine low levels of critical habitat in protected areas (3.14 per cent) with alarming levels of habitat loss (55.6 per cent).
The map Centres of food crop diversity threatened and under protected correlates updated protected area statistics with key Crop Wild Relative (CWR) areas and draws on a study conducted by WWF, environmental research group Equilibrium and the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, published as Food Stores: Using protected areas to secure crop genetic diversity in 2006.
Other crops where levels of protection for remnant crop wild relatives fall below five percent include rice varieties in Bangladesh, homelands for lentils, peas, grapes and almonds, and areas of Spain where a protected area ratio of 4.6% significant for wild olive relatives is mismatched by the loss of almost three quarters of all habitat.
The Americas fare slightly better, but important areas of agrobiodiversity including areas where corn originated and important to wild relatives of the potato are less than 10 % protected.
“The wild relatives of commercial crops provide a critical reserve of genes that are regularly needed to strengthen and adapt their modern domestic cousins in a changing world,” Higgins-Zogib said.
“We already have reserves and national parks to protect charismatic species like pandas and tigers, and to preserve outstanding areas of natural beauty. It is now time to offer protection to the equally valuable wild and traditional relatives of the plants that feed the world like rice, wheat and potatoes.
“And because people are part of landscapes too, we urge conservationists and governments thinking of new protected areas to allow the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples — particularly the women who have traditionally been the gardeners and seedkeepers of their communities.”