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2017-12-11

Unsustainable agriculture and urbanisation threaten wild crop species

Rice Red rice paddy field in Japan (Photo: CC0)

Species of wild rice, wheat and yam are threatened by intensive agriculture and urban expansion, according to the latest red list of endangered species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The conservationists warn that this could negatively impact food security. “Healthy, species-rich ecosystems are fundamental to our ability to feed the world’s growing population and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 – to end hunger by 2030,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen in a press release. “Wild crop species, for example, maintain genetic diversity of agricultural crops that can adapt to a changing climate and ensure food and nutritional security.” For the red list update, 26 species of wild wheat, 25 species of wild rice and 44 species of wild yam were assessed. The researchers found that in total, three species of wild rice, two species of wild wheat and 17 wild yam species are threatened. The “IUCN Red List update raises the alarm about their decline and stresses the urgency to address it – for the sake of our own future,” Andersen added.

Deforestation and urban expansion alongside pressures from intensive agriculture, particularly over-grazing and extensive use of herbicides, are the primary threats to these species. IUCN therefore highlights the need to reduce intensive agricultural practices such as overgrazing and indiscriminate herbicide use in order to conserve crop wild relatives. The group also calls for a better preservation of crop wild relatives in gene banks and their use in plant breeding. Cross-breeding modern crop cultivars with crop wild relatives adds necessary genetic diversity, improving resistance to drought, disease and pests – all of which are likely to become increasing problems in a changing climate, the conservationists said. “The genetic diversity provided by crop wild relatives will allow us to develop more resilient crops in the era of climate change, helping ensure food security. We ignore the fate of these species at our own peril,” warns IUCN’s wild relative specialist Nigel Maxted. The group points to a recent study which found that 72% of crop wild relatives are not adequately preserved in gene banks and conservation in situ in the wild remains a challenge. According to ICUN, crop wild relatives are also of high economic value, contributing US$115 billion annually to the global economy. (ab)

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