Dealing with wild relatives


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Once upon a time, corn wasn’t corn and coffee wasn’t coffee. Farmers created all our crops out of wild plants. Many of the crops’ wild relatives are still out there, but they’re disappearing fast. Ironically, it’s happening just as biotechnology is opening up previously unimagined opportunities to use these species to produce better crops.

Experts used to say the best way to solve the problem was to collect samples of the wild relatives and save them in gene banks. However, in many cases we don’t know enough about the species to do that and some perform poorly outside their original habitat. So scientists have come to recognize that many of the crops’ wild relatives will have to be conserved back where they came from.

Brien Meilleur and Toby Hodgkin’s Biodiversity and Conservation article titled In situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives: Status and Trends reviews how that effort is going. They say the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) now give the issue more attention. Governments around the world from Armenia to Vietnam have started to identify and map the wild relatives of all sorts of cereals, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The former Soviet Union published the first national list of wild relatives of crops in 1981, and other countries have followed since. Turkey has protected 22 Genetic Management Zones. Mexico has a special biosphere reserve to protect the wild relatives of maize and India has one for citrus. The United States is trying to protect the wild relatives of grapes, onions, and potatoes.

Even so, most countries have yet to take serious measures to protect their crops’ wild relatives. Most wild relatives have yet to be assessed and mapped. Existing protected areas don’t cover many of the important species and some of those species can only be found in heavily populated and disturbed regions where it will be hard to create new parks. The only option for those species may be to conserve them on farms and in sacred sites and alongside roads.

Clearly, we need to do more. Wild relatives hold answers to problems such as pests and diseases and coping with climate change, yet few people are paying enough attention. These species may not be as cute as pandas or koala bears but they can help put food on the table. No matter how wild these relatives are, as far as the peanuts and tomatoes are concerned family is still family.

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Further reading

To obtain a free electronic copy of this paper you can click on the following hyperlink:,1,11;journal,26,152;linkingpublicationresults,1:100125,1

The paper will be available at that address free of charge until May 30th, 2006. If you have trouble accessing the paper from there you can write Catherine Cotton at:

To send comments and queries to the authors you can write to Brien Meilleur at:

The full reference of the article is: Meilleur, B.A., and T. Hodgkin. 2004. In situ Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives: Status and Trends, Biodiversity and Conservation 13: 663-84.