nigel maxtedThe research of Dr Nigel Maxted at the University of Birmingham is “committed to the conservation of genetic diversity in plants with a focus on species of agricultural value, using novel approaches to conservation and diversity management”. To learn more click here. Dr Maxted is a senior lecturer in plant genetic conservation, with specific expertise in in situ and ex situ conservation techniques.

Wild genetic diversity is essential for protecting global crops such as wheat, barley, rice and beans from climate change, pests and environmental stress. The world’s plant genetic resources are under considerable threat. Crop improvement depends on diversity in our plant genetic resources, which, it is argued, is inadequately recognised and conserved.

Biodiversity is at risk:

  • University website: from multiple threats including climate change.
  • Financial Times account: from conflict in the Middle East, habitat loss in China and inaction in southern Europe
  • India’s minister for agriculture: after halting GM food trials, explains that this has been done, “to ensure that no harm is done to traditional gene pool /biodiversity of the nation, soil, food security and health of the people of India”.

The Birmingham scientists have compiled a global database of wild species related to priority crops for use by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation as it debates strategies for conservation.

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The database reveals that establishing protected reserves in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East is the most crucial action for protecting global food security. However, such resources are an issue of national sovereignty and the FAO remains in negotiation with governments in the region.

Fears over the Syrian civil war provoked the duplication and safe relocation of thousands of samples of crop and wild relative varieties to international gene banks.

shelagh kellThe Birmingham researchers also point to China and southern Europe as crucial for preserving the genetic diversity of important crops. “China has a flora that is one of the richest in the world,” says project manager Shelagh Kell. “This diversity represents a vast natural reservoir of genetic resources.” Despite their potentially high economic value, at least 17% of wild native crop relatives in China are at risk of extinction.

The database compiled by the Birmingham team and its Chinese colleagues identifies which species should be flagged as a conservation priority. The next step in China is to locate the ideal sites.

European conservation is not much further ahead. 11.5% of European crop wild relatives are threatened with extinction. Countries with the highest diversity of species include Portugal, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain.

Ms Kell calls for funding from an organisation like FAO to provide the funding and skills to help those countries to conserve plant genetic resources.

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